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Thanksgiving with a Native American Perspective

November 25
21:52 2013

ThanksgivingNativePerspectLet’s face it, Thanksgiving for most people in the U.S. is an opportunity to gather with friends and family over a turkey dinner, pumpkin pie, and football. Nothing wrong with that, and here in the community Page, Arizona, many people give so that others can enjoy a community Thanksgiving meal. Check out our Community Billboard for information about Thanksgiving community meals in Kaibeto and Page.

The story of Thanksgiving for many baby-boomers was presented in the school system from the perspective of an iconic remembrance of a peaceful harvest exchange between “Indians” and Pilgrims.  We colored and pasted together turkeys with colored paper and crayons.  Our picture of Thanksgiving looked like the one above of pilgrims and “Indians” sharing hides, beans, corn, and squash.  These pictures romanticized the colonization of America in a way that made us feel happy and good.

Thanksgiving History

The history of Thanksgiving spans many cultures and traditions.  In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and was one of many important religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. According to Wikipedia, the event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621.  This Plymouth  feast lasted three days, and it was attended by 90 Native Americans  and 53 Pilgrims.

The pilgrims arrived in Plymouth with insufficient supplies brought from England.  Squanto, a Patuxent Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them (Squanto had learned English during travels in England). Additionally the Wampanoag leader Massasoit donated food stores to the fledgling colony during the first winter. The native people fed them through the winter and taught them how to grow their food, even though they had already experienced European slave trader raids in their villages for a hundred years or so.  Still, it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing.

In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” In 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 “National American Indian Heritage Month, ” which was later revised to Native American Heritage Month.”

Day of Mourning

While many Native Americans and non-Native Americans get together with family and friends to enjoy Thanksgiving, the historical aspect of a peaceful exchange is full of dichotomies.  While it’s said that the Wampanoag and the European pilgrims shared in a harvest celebration that marks the origin of our  Thanksgiving tradition; within fifty years, the Wampanoag were no longer a free people. Like the celebration of Columbus Day, for many, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of colonization’s devastating impact on indigenous peoples, including the 1864 deportation of the Navajo people to the Bosque Redondo by the United States of America.

For the United American Indians of New England, Thanksgiving marks a Day of Mourning for the the massacre of 700 Pequot Indians  — men, women, and children in Mystic, Connecticut in 1637. On that day, John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Colony Governor, proclaimed that a “Thanksgiving” would to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed colonial volunteers following the Pequot massacre.

November is Native American Heritage Month

Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to be thankful for our family, friends, and community and to learn from the past.  We can enjoy each other and also ask what we can learn from the shared experiences of diverse groups throughout the world.  We can learn the story and message of Thanksgiving from a Native American Perspective and how we can learn from the past and the present. In addition to the focus on family, friends, and giving thanks, Thanksgiving can be one that recognizes the country’s original people, their contributions and traditions.

Native American Harvest Ceremonies and Prayers

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life.— Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Thanksgiving Address

Prayers of thanks and special harvest ceremonies are common around the world.  In the fall, the Navajo people of the Four Corners celebrate the year’s harvest with a community celebration in Shiprock. In late September, thousands of people from all over Arizona and the U.S. visit Polacca and First Mesa for the annual Hopi Harvest Festival. In Africa, Kwanzaa is celebration is based on African harvest traditions.

During Native American Heritage Month, food is one of the many contributions of indigenous people we recognize.  Corn was first cultivated by Native South American and Mesoamerican farmers about 7,500 years ago. Many foods harvested by American indigenous cultures; including potatoes, tomatoes, chili and chocolate are fundamental food staples worldwide.

These foods and the plants that surround us go way beyond just simply being plants. They become part of the community. —Angelo Joaquin, Jr. (Tohono O’odham), 2003

Read “Native American Perspectives of Thanksgiving” a publication from the National Museum of the American Indian.

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