These Native Americans focus on family amid Thanksgiving’s dark history

A film transparency of the painting "The First Thanksgiving," by J.L.G. Ferris. (Foundation Press/Library of Congress/Washington Post Illustration)
A film transparency of the painting "The First Thanksgiving," by J.L.G. Ferris. (Foundation Press/Library of Congress/Washington Post Illustration)

For centuries, Thanksgiving has been billed as an opportunity for friends and family to gather, with peace and gratitude in their hearts. But for Native Americans, celebrating the autumnal holiday isn’t as simple.

The short-and-sweet story told in schools depicting the first Thanksgiving as a harmonious harvest celebration between Native people and Pilgrims “was a very romanticized, whitewashed education about Indigenous peoples,” said Jordan Daniel, who’s a member of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe.

In reality, 1621 was not the first celebration of Thanksgiving between the English and the Wampanoag people, said David Silverman, a George Washington University professor who specializes in Native American history. The Wampanoags tried to ally with the English for trade and to maintain political independence from another Native group after an epidemic dwindled their numbers.

“Tensions built for years as the English population grew and began dispossessing, subjugating and evangelizing Native people,” Silverman said. Finally, war broke out around 1675, and after the English won, they enslaved about 2,000 American Indian prisoners of war, he added.

In 1970, the United American Indians of New England began commemorating Thanksgiving Day as a national day of mourning to honor its ancestors who experienced cultural genocide at the hands of European colonialists.

Native Americans as a whole say they’re still fighting for what’s rightfully theirs. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe still doesn’t have control over its entire ancestral land. The Supreme Court has been weighing the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which Congress passed in 1978 to remedy the practice of removing Native children from their homes and sending them to non-Native boarding schools and families.

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Pete Coser Jr., an educator and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, also pointed to the recent news that Harvard University’s Peabody Museum apologized for its collection of hair samples taken from 700 Native American children and pledged to return them to families and tribal communities. “It goes to show many different dynamics about this holiday and this particular year,” he said.

Despite the painful history Thanksgiving rehashes, Indigenous people also see themselves as resilient. The fourth Thursday in November is an opportunity for them to celebrate their roots and crush stereotypes, Coser says.

Pete Coser Jr.

Pete Coser Jr., who lives in Oklahoma, says Thanksgiving for him feels like being in a real-life Hallmark movie.

As Coser’s family readies their feast for the day, Coser’s aunts, sisters and mom banter over who cooks the best dishes. Coser loves his oldest sister’s pumpkin gooey cake. And when the food is ready, multiple generations gather at the table to enjoy turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole and potato salad. They end the day with games such as Uno, Clue and — when it’s just the adults — Cards Against Humanity.

Although Thanksgiving harks back to a tumultuous history for Indigenous people, Coser doesn’t let tragedy define his Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw and Chickasaw lineage, or the Mashpee Wampanoag ancestry his three sons and daughter also have from their mother’s side.

His last name hails from the Coosa region, which was one of the biggest chiefdoms in the Southeast, straddling what is now Georgia and Alabama. And although the Spaniards who colonized the area saw the tribal leaders, called mekko, as chiefs, they’re actually kings, Coser said.

“What I tell my kids is that: ‘You come from royalty. You come from powerful people,’ ” he said. “They have a place on this Earth that they can point to and say: ‘That’s where I’m originally from.’ ”

Coser’s family takes pride in being Native American, not just on Thanksgiving, but throughout their everyday lives. They embrace being Indigenous while also being lacrosse players, musicians, educators, historians, psychologists and accountants.

“We’re not people of the past,” Coser said.

Jordan Daniel

Although Northern Virginia mom Jordan Daniel loved how Thanksgiving brought her family together, she no longer celebrates Thanksgiving the way she used to.

Instead, she observes Truthsgiving through a four-mile running event hosted by Rising Hearts, the grass-roots organization that she founded. Each year, Daniel has used the event as a way for both Native and non-Native people to raise awareness and money for Indigenous social issues.

Daniel first learned the true history of Thanksgiving from a Do Something article, which motivated her to place more importance on “honoring the past, celebrating the present and building a future” for Native people like herself.

She still gathers with her family on the day, but she plans to make Indigenous cuisine that goes beyond the Indian tacos, fry bread and Wojapi her family has eaten in previous years. She wants to incorporate foods known in Native culture as the three sisters: beans, corn and squash.

“At the heart of it all, it’s just about supporting and amplifying Indigenous voices in our communities and … having an open heart and open mind,” she said. “It challenges what you thought growing up, but I think we’re collectively, as a community, doing a lot of the work of unlearning and relearning.”

Josh Arce

Josh Arce, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation living in Dallas, has always spent his Thanksgivings partaking in food and fellowship with multiple generations of those he calls family, even if they’re not blood-related: cousins, aunties, uncles and grandmas.

“It may not be your grandma, but they’re an adopted grandma,” he said. “There’s this pluralism of families that takes place, and it’s naturally kind of that way in Native cultures.”

Back when Arce lived in Lawrence, Kan., that family included Native students who weren’t able to go home for Thanksgiving. Arce plays dominoes and eats traditional foods such as wild rice casserole, usually made with sausage or ground turkey and cream of mushroom soup, or dishes made with squash or pumpkins.

“We have this historical trauma. We have intergenerational trauma,” he said. But when Native Americans have fun on Thanksgiving, “those are creating good memories to replace those negative, traumatic memories.

Verna Volker

Verna Volker, who’s based in Minneapolis, lives far from her extended family in New Mexico, home of the Navajo Nation. Thanksgiving has often given Volker a reason to fly over and reconnect with them.

Last year, Thanksgiving was especially sentimental for Volker, because her mother died a few days before the holiday. Family members, even more than for a typical Thanksgiving, flew in from across the country for her mom’s funeral. The time they shared further accentuated how important family time was to Volker. Ever since Volker was a child, her family has weathered the storms of trauma and grief as a group.

“Even in our grieving, we were together and we were laughing,” Volker said.

Over the years, her family has feasted on a mixed menu of popular Thanksgiving dishes and ones specific to Navajo culture, such as mutton stew and hominy stew.

Whether on Thanksgiving or in daily life, she loves seeing Indigenous people in a positive light and works to debunk stereotypes that show Native people as drunks, overly sexual or rich from casino money.

“There’s so much negativity on our people,” she said. “I want to change that narrative.”

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