Mark Kohan, who attended the feast from 2015 to 2017, remembers it well. “Some of the best food I’ve had in my life,” the lifelong educator said.
The feast is about more than good company and giving thanks. Each year there are speeches to help illustrate the culture of Native Americans — and how the community has historically been imperiled and misunderstood.
Soon Americans from coast to coast will congregate to carve cooked birds, bemoan NFL refs and launch into cross-table political conflicts. The feast, which took place this year on Saturday, is not one of those mainstream celebrations. It’s one of many efforts to push for a more accurate and inclusive understanding of the holiday. Call it re-indigenizing Thanksgiving. But it’s a tall task to defeat the stubborn myth of docile natives and pleasant Pilgrims joining hands that Americans learn in elementary school.
“I want my kids to grow up without the lies that my teachers taught me,” Kohan said. “Why are we not aware that indigenous education is public education?”
Let’s set the record straight. There was a meal between English settlers and Wampanoag tribespeople in 1621 — but it wasn’t a “Thanksgiving.” A thanksgiving was actually a Protestant religious observance that predated it. A minister named Alexander Young wrongly conflated the two in a footnote in a book he wrote in 1841, after reading notes about the meal in a settler’s manuscript, and the meal became known as the first Thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” liked the story so much she spent 36 years campaigning to make it the basis of a national holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln acquiesced, seeing his war-torn country and concluding a unification myth was necessary.
A piece of fan fiction, elevated to national gospel. And native tribes, who had suffered centuries of injustice, were relegated to a jolly sidekick role. But no one wants to hear all that when they’re loading up their plates.
“America gets to tell itself a reason why it is how it is, but it does it at the expense of native peoples,” said Chris Newell, who is Passamaquoddy and the museum’s education supervisor. “It writes out all other settler contact with indigenous Americans.”
These efforts come amid a backdrop of November-related politicization. The White House recently got in hot water for proclaiming it National American History and Founders Month when it’s already regarded as Native American Heritage Month. At a Florida rally Tuesday, President Trump vowed to resist efforts by “some people” to change the name of Thanksgiving, causing Fox News to examine the claim and #WaronThanksgiving to trend on Twitter — though it’s unclear who he was referring to.
Alexis Bunten, who is Aleut and Yup’ik, said her childhood Thanksgivings were family dinners with little fanfare. Then she went to Dartmouth College and joined in her East Coast friends’ holiday plans. As they’d go around the table and list off the things they were thankful for, she couldn’t help but find the merriment silly. Giving thanks? What about the stolen lands and children? The genocidal violence?
Bunten, as a co-director of indigeneity for the environmentally minded nonprofit Bioneers, has twice helped put together re-indigenized Thanksgiving dinners — one in New York City, then another in Monterey, Calif., where she now lives. The guest lists included native and nonnative folks, Democrats and Republicans. A few Standing Rock water protectors active during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests came to the first dinner to describe what they went through. The Monterey dinner featured a speech about the ongoing sexual trafficking of native children.
“Validation today comes from conversation, people being open, understood and recognized as commonly human,” Bunten said. “And a lot of people are afraid of dealing with that. But it’s okay to.”
Bunten is also teaming with Danielle Hill, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal consultant, to write a re-indigenized children’s book called “Keepunumuk: Weeachumun’s Thanksgiving Story.” It’s a tale starring Corn, who wants human hands to grow her so she can feed the people — Hill picked the traditional native crop because its history gets lost in all the turkey talk.
Susan Mitchell, who owns a small family farm in Mansfield, Conn., does the traditional Thanksgiving thing with her conservative relatives. They don’t know she’s been to two Feasts at the Pequot Museum. They wouldn’t get it, she said. So she goes with her friends to immerse herself in the rhythms and stories and swelling aromas.
“You walk in and feel like you’re in an Indian village,” said Melissa Cisco, a Brooklyn history teacher who came to the feast with two carloads of people back in 2017. She grew up identifying as African American but wants to reclaim her indigenous roots. Her family disregarded Thanksgiving entirely and never discussed the reason why. Now, Cisco can make the holiday her own.
Chef Sherry Pocknett (Mashpee Wampanoag), the much-profiled former food and beverage director for the Pequot Museum, never partook in the Thanksgiving myth. That day each year, her mother would take her to Cole’s Hill in Plymouth for the National Day of Mourning protests, which the United American Indians of New England began in 1970. For them and their allies, November’s fourth Thursday is a reminder of what was lost, what was stolen and what was destroyed.
“My mom was tired of people treating us badly,” Pocknett said. “People don’t realize we’ve been here for 14,000 years and we’re not going anywhere.” This year, she thinks she’ll head back to Plymouth. It’ll be like she never missed a beat.
Venture over to the West Coast and there’ll be a boat leaving the northern tip of San Francisco at 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. It’s heading to Alcatraz for the Sunrise Ceremony, more commonly known as Un-Thanksgiving Day, which began in 1975. People sing honor songs from the boat until it reaches the island. Then a procession marches up the hill to a landing plain. A powwow drum thumps. The intertribal All Nations Singers are in front, then the folks carrying sacred eagle staffs, then tribal flag bearers, then the bannermen from a range of affinity groups. Nonnative students, families and international visitors are among the mix.
Manny Lieras, an Oakland-based Navajo and Comanche youth educator, sings with the All Nation Singers. He’s been going to Un-Thanksgiving Day for 16 years.
“Sunrise is a celebration of culture,” Lieras said, “and an acknowledgment of the mourning the settler invasion caused.”
Debunking the myth will take more songs, more articles, more arguments and more feasts. That’s why Kohan helped to bring a scaled-down version of the feast to some Connecticut elementary school kids last year. The kids had so many questions. It was time to teach.
“With Thanksgiving, we’ve largely had views from the boat,” Kohan said. “We need to have more views from the shore.”