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Understanding Indigenous Culture in North Dakota Series: Thanksgiving Truth

Every year, millions of people celebrate Thanksgiving. Some come together with family to share gratitude. Others eat around the table and discuss politics. Still others work through the day, start shopping discounts, or travel over the holiday. However, there are some that do not celebrate Thanksgiving, but not because they don’t believe in gratitude, family, or fellowship. They don’t celebrate because for them, it was the beginning of a great loss. One that they are reminded of every year. Below are some of the myths and some of the facts about how people perceive, remember, and celebrate the third Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving myth: The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the courageous and pioneering Pilgrims to America in Plymouth, Massachusetts, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to a celebratory feast with them and then disappear. They hand off America to thes

e colonists so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism.

Continuing the myths, history does not begin for Indigenous people when the Europeans arrived. People had been in the Americas for at least 12,000 years and according to some Indigenous traditions, since the beginning of time. Having history start with the English is a way of dismissing all that. Further, almost like a tv-show, the arrival of the Mayflower is seen as the first-contact episode. It’s not. Wampanoags had a century of contact with Europeans–it was bloody, and it involved slave raiding by Europeans. At least two and maybe more Wampanoags, when the Pilgrims arrived, spoke English, had already been to Europe and back, and knew the intent of the Pilgrims, to come and colonize the “new world.”

Thanksgiving truth: Thanksgiving, as it has come to be observed in America, is a time of mourning for many Indigenous People. It serves as a reminder of how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many indigenous people via disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation. In addition, the telling and retelling of falsehoods is deeply traumatic to the Wampanoag Indians of the original Plymouth area, whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived, as well as all indigenous people for over 500 years.

When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the Wampanoag sachem (chief) Ousamequin offered the European pilgrims a friendly alliance primarily to protect the Wampanoags against their rivals, the Narragansetts. For the next 50 years, that very alliance was tested by colonial land expansion, the spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land. Then, tensions ignited into war. Known as King Philip’s War (or the Great Narragansett War), the conflict devastated the Wampanoags and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European pilgrims. Wampanoags today remember the Pilgrims’ entry to their homeland as a day of deep mourning, rather than a moment of giving thanks.

In 1970, to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in America, the National Day of Mourning was instituted by the leader of the Wampanoag tribe at the time, Frank James (1923-2001). He created the United American Indians of New England, and along with the local Wampanoag community, the National Day of Mourning was created as a resistance to Thanksgiving. This alternative holiday is held at Plymouth Rock and has occurred annually for almost 50 years. The National Day of Mourning also coincides with an event on the other side of the country that takes place on Alcatraz Island (an important Indigenous site). Unthanksgiving Day, also known as The Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, is a large cultural event that has been held annually since 1975 and commemorates the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement occupation of 1969.

Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Goal: Students will reflect on three questions: When did you first know about Thanksgiving? Where did you learn about Thanksgiving? Who taught you about Thanksgiving?

· The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue

· This Thanksgiving, Make these Native Recipes from Indigenous Chefs


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