corn; photo by Roderick y Diaz via Unsplash

What Thanksgiving means for Native Americans

November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving is a day when many people in the United States celebrate the Puritan settlers who made it through winter with the help of Native Americans. Schoolchildren in elementary schools commemorate the First Thanksgiving by dressing up as pilgrims and “Indians,” and families everywhere celebrate the pilgrims’ successful fall harvest with traditional feasts­—but what do Native Americans think of this holiday?

Queana Maher, a pre-nursing student at CU Denver and citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe located in both South and North Dakota, was taught a different story in school. “The pilgrims needed the Native Americans’ help to survive during this season,” she said. “The new people (non-Natives) to this continent were cold and suffered from sickness and diseases. This was a time that Native Americans helped them survive.” 

Thanksgiving narrative simplifies American history

While Queana learned a different story, she acknowledges that the narrative of happy co-existence still dominates the education system. Sometimes the story involves “how the Indians were so grateful of the settlers coming to this land because they taught the Indians how to survive by farming and harvesting food,” she said. Ultimately, this simplifies our nation’s complex, often devastating, history: “Not only is this story far from being accurate but rather makes this story out to be romanticized and as a fairy tale. In reality, this story is insensitive and erases the truth of what my people have endured since the first contact of settlers to this nation known as the United States,” Queana explains.

Americans may not get exposed to a Thanksgiving counter-narrative, especially on college campuses. That’s because “Native American students make up less than one percent at CU Denver,” as Queana points out. And this figure is the same nationwide. According to “The Condition of Education 2019,” a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, American Indian or Alaska Native students have the lowest college enrollment rates and the highest high school dropout rates of all races/ethnicities included in the study. 

Wampanoag Tribe helped colonists survive

The low rate of Native American college students should not keep non-native Americans from trying to understand this nation’s complex history. The National Museum of the American Indian publishes an educational guide titled “American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving,” which lays out a more accurate history the First Thanksgiving in 1621: “The Indians in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in this historic encounter, and they had been essential to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers’ first year. The Wampanoag were a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years.”

In looking at Thanksgiving, we should consider the realities faced by all participants. But people can still enjoy the holiday, because it represents gratitude. For Queana, the holiday pays tribute to her tribal heritage: “It is a time that we come together with our family and friends in remembrance of our ancestors who have died and fought for us to continue to be here as a people.” For others, Thanksgiving can be a time to thank the earth for its bountiful harvest, or to thank one’s family or community. 

November is Native American Heritage Month

Thanksgiving happens to fall at the end of November, which is Native American Heritage Month. Both offer good reasons to reflect on the Native American experience, although Queana believes “the month of November shouldn’t be the only month in which people should choose to recognize the American Indian people.” She would like non-natives to ask questions, attend pow-wows, and generally make an effort to understand her people. “There is no way of changing the past but rather there is hope to change the future,” she said.