Native American Heritage Month versus Thanksgiving

Constructed History

Constructed History

“…..It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.”

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

–Abraham Lincoln

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2014 as National Native American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities, and to celebrate November 28, 2014, as Native American Heritage Day.”

–President Barack Obama

Resolution to Honor Native American Heritage Month 

“…Whereas the people of the United States have reason to honor the great achievements and contributions of Native Americans and their ancestors: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Senate—

(1) recognizes the month of November 2014 as National Native American Heritage Month;

(2) recognizes the Friday after Thanksgiving as “Native American Heritage Day” in accordance with the Native American Heritage Day Act of 2009 (Public Law 111–33; 123 Stat. 1922); and

(3) urges the people of the United States to observe National Native American Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Day with appropriate programs and activities.”

— Put forth by Senator Jon Tester

November 21, 2014

I am sure that the irony of celebrating Thanksgiving during Native American Heritage Month has not escaped many in Indian Country. I get asked on a regular basis “Do Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?” Certainly I cannot speak for all Native Americans but, yes, I have and do celebrate Thanksgiving. However, what I give thanks for may not be what is typically thought of as the historical motivation for Thanksgiving, as discussed below. As a child, the third of sixth, I well recall having a huge Thanksgiving dinner shared with our dear friends, Betty and Don, and their four children. Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin and mincemeat pies, and a multitude of salads was the yearly fare, repeated again on Christmas. I loved Thanksgiving for the food and the company but as a mixed race child, Greek, Metie, and Taidnapam/Cowlitz, even very young I had a somewhat confusing sense of exactly what Native people celebrated.

In addition to the “American Thanksgiving Celebration,” one of the more confusing memories of my childhood is drawing an outline of my hand, adding a face and a wattle, coloring the fingers into feathers, and attaching feet to my hand, creating a kindergartener’s version of a Thanksgiving turkey. The next task was, of course, to write up my “own” version of Indians and Pilgrims. The only “original” part of the story was the grade at the top of my paper based on my ability to copy from the blackboard and the legibility of my handwriting, usually a “D.” And, the story went like this:

Three hundred and some years ago,

There was a very cold winter.

The Pilgrims were freezing and starving.

The Indians gave the Pilgrims food.

Everyone had a big feast and was friends.

Now we celebrate Thanksgiving and everyone are still friends.

The End

Of course, what was missing from the “education” I and millions of other school children (and adults) was the reality behind the myth that the Pilgrims who had fled from England due to religious persecution in 1620 and the Wananpoag people who lived in the area were “friends” and lived in “peaceful harmony” for forty years until European diseases decimated the Native people. And every year, as the story goes, the Pilgrims and the Wananpoag sat down to huge meals in celebration of harvest, harmony, and health.

The truth was far less rosy with warfare breaking out within a few years between the Native people of the land and the settlers with the eventual destruction of the people who had welcomed the Pilgrims and saved their lives in the first cold and deadly winter they were on this land.

It is from this first celebration that our present day holiday supposedly came to be. There are other reports that the Spanish Conquistadors held similar celebrations in thanks of bountiful harvests. But, in fact, it is the American myth of the Pilgrims and Indians “First Thanksgiving” that is still perpetuated today.

The history of the Native people, as taught to children like me and from what appears to be ongoing even in 2014, was written from a “whitewashed” viewpoint, emphasizing the glory of Manifest Destiny and, in my California history books, the colonization of California Native peoples by the Catholic missionaries. In fact, the genocide and annihilation of the Native people of the Americas already begun, well before the “first” Thanksgiving. The history books I was provided in school and which I dutifully memorized, briefly mentioned Native people such as those that “celebrated” the first Thanksgiving, those that lived in the fertile valleys of California, and the two Native women most often mentioned in the myths and legends of American history, Sacajawea and Pocahontas.

My world, in the fifties and sixties, consisted of the venerated Westerns of John Wayne where the “terrible Indians” terrorizing the “brave settlers” who were only trying to establish homes in the frontier. The theft of land, language, children, and culture from the Native people of the land was never discussed, particularly as it came to out and out genocide, smallpox contaminated blankets, the whole scale slaughter of the bison and other game, and the establishment of the reservations. There was little outside my home to counter these horrific images. Inside my home my father, who carried the Native blood in my family, spoke to me of being a “stick Indian,” a person of the Taidnapam band, the people who lived in the woods of Mount Rainier and the Cascade Mountains. We were enrolled with the Cowlitz tribe, people who were scattered to the winds but held on until we received our federal recognition on February 14, 2000. I was given traditional Native values and the absolute belief that, despite five hundred years of genocide, we still survived and had an obligation to both our ancestors and to those who would come after us.

Now, as a woman who has recently reached sixty, the same age at which my father and paternal grandfather died, I look at the ads on television, on the Internet, and in the printed media. I see happy white families with the occasional African American families, cheerfully serving up turkeys, hams, and all the other luscious foods I ate as a child. But, what remains lacking is the truth of what happened shortly after that long ago winter when the Wananpoag people and the Pilgrims set down to celebrate and to give thanks to their God and their Creator. What I see is the ongoing perpetration and perpetuation of the myths of harmony and good cheer and brotherhood where, as the joke goes, people sit down and recite their blessing in preparation for 5:00 pm when many stores open for Black Friday, a time when people trample others in order to acquire a twenty dollar television.

Thanksgiving in Indian Country may take a bit of a different twist. Last year it was the racist and offensive Mastadon tee shirt that was up for sell. The band claimed it purported to tell of the atrocities against Native people but, in fact, it sexualized Native women and trivialized the high rate of violence against them.

This year it is the awful and disrespectful costume donned by Leilani Dowding where she wore a traditional headdress with fake blood running down her face. It was dubbed the “most offensive Native costume,” a title it well deserves. And, of course, Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving without schools having children draw turkeys made from the outline of their hands, fake headbands and dyed feathers, nonNative children dressed up as they believe “Indians” did, and other children dressing up as Pilgrims in school pageants or other venues.

A quick perusal of Native sites on social media shows cartoons about illegal immigration by the Pilgrims, Pilgrims and Indians sitting at a table together while the Pilgrims carve up the continent for themselves, and Native chiefs suggesting the Europeans “go home.” While some of these cartoons are tongue in cheek, in fact, they also represent the view that many Native people, this author included, have of Thanksgiving as portrayed in American mythology.

But, back to the question, do Native people celebrate Thanksgiving? Yes and no. I celebrate the day with family and friends and in thanks of another year of life and love. I do not celebrate it as the day all the people of the land came together in health, happiness, and joy. I well remember that Abraham Lincoln, a face on Mount Rushmore and a beloved figure to all “Americans,” is not a hero to those of us in Indian Country for his order to hang dozens of Santee Sioux men for no other reason than to bring the Sioux people to their knees.

I sit with doubt over the sincerity of a Congress that refused to renew the Violence Against Women Act because it allowed tribes to have jurisdiction over nonNative people on their reservations. To say that the Republican party has less than charitable thoughts about Native people would be kind, e.g. L. Brooks Patterson, Todd Kincannon.

I have a great deal of skepticism the proclamation that the day after Thanksgiving, otherwise known as “Black Friday,” is the best day to celebrate the countless contributions to our world Native people have made. I do not believe that, in spite of a Senate resolution that was unanimously passed to acknowledge these contributions, the American people will stop and think what it means to be Native in this country when the NFL team from Washington is still known by a racist name that speak of the unspeakable horrors faced by Native people.

What I will celebrate this year is that Native people such as Amanda BlackHorse, Suzan Harjo, Ray Hilbritter, Winona LaDuke, and thousands of others are saying “We are here.” “We will speak up.” “We will celebrate our survival and we will move ahead.” So, this coming Friday, I will speak up about my people, the Taidnapam people, the Cowlitz people, and all other Native people and give thanks to my Creator that we are still here. And next year, maybe the mascot will change. Maybe Pharrell Williams and other celebrities such as Khloe Kardashian and Cher will take off the headdress. Maybe next year when people sit down to their Thanksgiving dinners, they will also acknowledge the existence of Native people. And if even one of these wishes comes even partially true, the Native people of this land will truly have something to celebrate over the Thanksgiving table.

One can only hope!

Robin A. Ladue, Ph.D. is a retired clinical psychologist. She is the author of  “Totems of September.” She is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington. She is a contributing writer to Native News Online.


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