Thanksgiving isn’t a monolith. It means very different things to people across the United States. And that sentiment rings even truer and more deeply when viewed through the perspective of the Indigenous people spread across the country. What, exactly, Thanksgiving means to Indigenous Americans is a question that’s rarely asked. More often than not, food is piled high on plates, football is on the TV, and shopping washes out any deeper conversation about the holiday’s origins and history.
And trust me, I love plates piled high. But I also believe that we all can do better in understanding this holiday.
To parse what Thanksgiving means to Indigenous folks, we decided to let them speak for themselves. I reached out to people I admire in the Indigenous community to speak their minds and talk about what this day in November means historically, practically, and going forward.
The Indigenous folks lending their voices to this discussion are:
- Chef Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota) who co-founded The Sioux Chef, the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems non-profit, and authored the James Beard award-winning cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.
- Andi Murphy (Diné) is a freelance journalist, producer of Native American Calling (a national radio Talking Circle), and award-winning podcast host of Toasted Sister Podcast in which Murphy talks to the leading voices in the Indigenous food movement.
- Joey Clift (Cowlitz) works in Los Angeles as a comedy writer, actor, and stand up comedian.
- Hillel Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) currently runs the Birch Basket catering company in Seattle and will be featured in a new series on PBS Independent Lens called alter-Native: Kitchen.
- Jacqueline Keeler (Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota) is an award-winning journalist, editor-in-chief of Pollen Nation Magazine, editor of Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for Bears Ears, author, and founder of the #NotYourMascot movement.
- Finally, there’s me, the question asker, Zach Johnston (Skokomish/Yakama/Hawaiian) who writes about Indigenous issues and food for UPROXX.
I grew up in a world where Thanksgiving was almost never questioned (at least not in front of the kids) and “traditional” spreads were fairly normal, even with my family on the Rez. When did you first start to realize the meaning of this holiday and, as an Indigenous person, how did that change your view of it?
Sean: As I continue to learn more and more about Native American history, culture, and food, it’s important to understand how to define this particular national holiday. When you research the beginning of why we celebrate Thanksgiving and the propagandistic whitewashed history of a nonexistent American togetherness (that excludes all other cultures outside of white European), you quickly realize how hollow those values are.
There’s an immense irony of how President Lincoln is celebrated as making this holiday official to help bring people together, using the colonial Pilgrim and Indian story. Under President Lincoln, we saw intensified and well-documented ethnic cleansing efforts against Native peoples, including horrific atrocities under his watch like the Sand Creek Massacre, Whitestone Hill Massacre, and the mass hanging of the Dakota 38.
When I first started realizing the true histories of these beginnings, there was a lot of anger. But that understanding also brought on a sense of purpose.
Andi: I learned the truth about Thanksgiving while taking American Indian studies courses in college. Like many Native college students who go through American Indian studies classes and learn about the truth behind Thanksgiving (and sometimes Native history for the first time), I was angry; indignant. I went to a boarding school on the Navajo reservation where nearly all students and most teachers were Navajo. I felt betrayed by all my previous teachers for teaching me nothing about the truth and making us do art projects that included friendly Pilgrims.
When I learned the truth, I felt angry at our family’s Thanksgiving table. This was for a few short years … then the anger just gets exhausting. My family get-togethers are full of storytelling, laughter and good food, it’s hard to sit there and fume. When I see smiling pilgrims today, I just roll my eyes so far back in my head that it hurts a little.
Joey: I had a similar experience. Growing up on the Tulalip Reservation, Thanksgiving was an excuse to miss school for a few days and visit my grandparents on the other side of the state. Besides a few snide comments about colonization from folks, I don’t remember anyone really sitting me down and explaining to me the complexities of celebrating Thanksgiving through a Native lens. It was just treated like any other holiday. Going to school on the reservation, Native issues and contemporary Native history was woven into the fabric of the school, so the Native association with Thanksgiving sort of bled into the background of everything else that I experienced growing up. My elementary school was within walking distance of a longhouse and the burned-out remains of a boarding school, so Thanksgiving was as “Native” as anything else I experienced.
Realizing the weirdness surrounding Thanksgiving has been a slow drip. Moving away from home to college, I quickly learned that being submerged in real Native culture from birth isn’t common for a lot of folks and for most people, the only things they know about us are what they learned in the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special or in the twenty minutes in the fourth grade when they’re teacher quickly explained to them the story of the first Thanksgiving while having them create their own headdresses out of dusty construction paper and scotch tape.
By that I mean, I was asked a lot of dumb questions about being Native from Non-Natives. I remember when I was a junior in college and a friend of mine who was a Resident Advisor asked for me to answer questions from his freshmen residents about “the Native experience.” I was a mentor for the Native student center at the time so this ask wasn’t that weird, but man, you haven’t lived if you haven’t had to answer questions from weirdly entitled college freshmen about something that they know next to nothing about, but think they’re total experts on. The highlight was probably the 18-year-old who, when I mentioned that tribes are their own sovereign nations, told me that because of that, it was illegal for me to vote in United States elections. In his mind, it was like I was somehow committing voter fraud.
Hillel: Growing up, Thanksgiving was never questioned. It was very traditional and celebrated with our church that perpetuated the Pilgrim and Indian myth of sitting at a table as friends together and sharing a meal.
I started to realize what Thanksgiving was about eight years ago when I read an article that told the real story. It made me look deeper into the holiday and how we, as a nation, have once again hidden the truth about what happened to Indigenous people and how Americans turn Indigenous people into mythical creatures.
Jacqueline: Thanksgiving to me has never been about pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh Nation, told my sister and me not to sing the line “Land of the pilgrim’s pride” in America (My Country ’tis of Thee). Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing “Land of the Indian’s pride” instead.
I was proud to sing the new lyrics in school, but I sang softly. It was enough for me to know the difference. At six, I felt I had learned something very important. As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors. I had learned that my family possessed some “inside” knowledge of what really happened when those poor, tired masses came to our homes.
Do you feel a responsibility to educate people on what happened to the Pequots and Wampanoag (and eventually Lakota and so, so many more) to even start to have a conversation about Thanksgiving? How can our education system stop failing Americans and stop punting on this holiday?
Sean: After quite a few years of working directly with Indigenous foods and seeing so much attention around this time of year with questions about how Native Americans celebrate, I think it’s a great time to start to look past just educating people on the real stories of Thanksgiving.
We need to start using this holiday that has given the average Americans a moment to think about Native American culture and use this attention for positive change by pursuing a modern understanding of the diversity of Indigenous cultures throughout our regions. We also need to ditch the dated and racist notions of the Pilgrim and Indian scenarios to move forward.
Andi: My responsibility as a Native journalist is to tell Native stories through Native voices. Yes, as a Native journalist, it is my responsibility to let the public know about the real atrocities of Thanksgiving, colonialism and racism, and all the issues caused as a result of those things.
But, personally, if I’m out and about in town going about my own business in non-Native places, I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to educate people about every single Native issue. Personally, I don’t have the energy for it. It’s exhausting. I don’t owe ignorant people my personal time.
Joey: As one of the very few Native American folks in the Los Angeles comedy community, I feel a huge pressure to educate people about Native issues because, as I said earlier, I’m asked a lot of silly questions by people who don’t know any better. Sometimes it’s harmless. A woman I did an improv show with when I first moved to Los Angeles reached out to me a few years later to ask if it was okay for her to get a dreamcatcher tattoo. I mean, I guess? Maybe?
Other times it’s hugely stressful like the pitch meeting I had earlier this year where the person I pitched to spent the entire meeting asking me if the towns near where he grew up, across the country from where I grew up, had Native names. There are 570+ federally recognized tribes. Hundreds more at the state level. The culture and language from one region to another might be as different as the cultural differences between the United Kingdom and Egypt. So, I don’t know, man. Google it?
I think the problem with our education system (and a big reason that people are so poorly educated about us) is that the story of Thanksgiving and American history, in general, is written in such a way to minimize any European guilt for committing a literal genocide. It’s harder to explain to people the dark complexities of Native Americans in the United States when you can just turn it into “The heroic Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the savage Indians were so excited that they made them a nice dinner and then gave them all of their lands before disappearing like Star Wars force ghosts.”
What I would like to see personally is for schools to have specific curriculums for each region where they educate the students on which tribe’s aboriginal land they are on. You could make it the first hour or two of U.S. history in 9th grade or whatever … anything. It should also include an update on what the tribe is up to right now. If you’re struggling to find where to slot that in your curriculum, spend slightly less time talking about former President Rutherford B. Hayes. He’ll be fine.
As of now, 90 percent of United States schools don’t cover Native American history at all after 1890 and because of that, a lot of folks just assume we either are extinct — “Are Natives extinct?” is a real question I’ve been asked — or that we still wear loin clothes all the time like it’s the 1700s. I would appreciate it if, during that elementary school unit where kids are making headdresses for the first Thanksgiving if, instead of that, teachers explained to them a more real, non-romanticized timeline of what happened. During that, they should also stress that Natives are still here and still doing a lot of awesome shit and then instead of having them make headdresses, you could have them Google awesome Natives who are doing cool stuff today and have them give a short presentation on the Native person they chose. Celebrate what we’re doing now instead of treating us like something that existed “then”.
This might sound hard for kids to grasp, but if what kids say while obliterating me while I’m playing Fortnite online is any indication, they can handle it.
Hillel: I don’t feel a responsibility so much to educate people because it’s not my responsibility to do something the U.S. school system has failed to do. If people ask or it comes up in conversation, yes, we have that conversation and I’m not afraid to make them uncomfortable with the truth. Our education system can stop failing by start telling the truth! History is uncomfortable. There is genocide in every colonized country throughout history. World War II was started because of genocide and there are multiple chapters in U.S. school textbooks on those events. Yet, there are two paragraphs — maybe a couple of pages if you’re lucky — on the entire history of colonization in this country.
I would start to fix this from an educational perspective in several ways. I would have a complete overhaul of teacher education and training when it comes to this. It starts with the teachers and staff in general. If they have bad information, how can they educate properly? In each year of school, the kids would have age-appropriate, truth about Indigenous people in their textbooks. It wouldn’t be sugar-coated by the time they are juniors in high school. There would be hands-on work with local tribes if possible. There would be field trips to places where atrocities happened and the truth wouldn’t be hidden. Money could be allocated specifically for this. There would be no more teachers handing out “find your Indian name or spirit animal or other culturally inappropriate thing” to take home and bring back. Teachers would have the training and funding to make this happen. We should have entire systems in place, in every state, tailored for those places, so that each tribe would be represented. WE ARE ALL NOT ONE TRIBE.
Jacqueline: Of course. We can’t make progress if each generation is taught propaganda that benefits only a portion of the population of the United States.
In my upcoming book Standoff: Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Occupation, I analyze some unknown truths about the Revolutionary War and the origins of the United States. I do this because we can’t even have a meaningful discussion about changing the present dynamic based on colonialism and exploitation of Indigenous lands and people of color if we don’t change the framing of the discussion.
I just spent three days interviewing tribal members on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Residents in White Swan are still living in mold-filled tribal housing after a bomb cyclone hit their community in March. Now, they’re facing winter with freezing temperatures and perhaps more flooding in the spring. I covered this in Indian Country Today and Sierra Magazine.
Despite all of this, they have found support in each other and regularly eat meals together in the community center. For Thanksgiving, they’re planning a meal with all the trimmings. The local non-Native community has donated turkeys. They are giving thanks, Wopida, for survival for still being there. “We are still here” is a refrain often heard throughout Indian Country, and it’s something that I hope all Americans remember this Thursday.
What does this holiday mean to you now? Do you still celebrate? If so, what do you eat? How important is it to your family on the Rez?
Sean: The exclusionist and revisionist history that celebrates an imaginary colonial harmony doesn’t fit into our modern world. We should grow and strive to be more inclusive, less racist, and more understanding of diversity. Thanksgiving should be about celebrating time with our family and friends and taking a moment to give thanks and appreciate everything that brought us together.
I relate it to the Spirit/Offering Plate found in many Native cultures that take that moment to think about and thank every plant, animal, and person both present and not present, living or passed, and everything that has brought us together and the importance of the food we share.
Andi: Thanksgiving is a food holiday; no Pilgrims and fall colors in sight. These days, Thanksgiving is at my house and I won’t allow tacky fall colors or Pilgrims in my home. It’s a chance for my mom and me to spend time in the kitchen, which is our favorite place in the world. We try new recipes and talk about food. We don’t talk about heavy issues at our dinner table and I like it that way. We make turkey and all the usual holiday items: mashed potatoes, stuffing, yeast rolls, and pumpkin pie from scratch. Because my mom and I love cooking, we spice things up, try different flavors and bring in wildcard items like wild rice and apple-pomegranate salads. This day is still important for me for this reason.
It’s important to my family because it’s a chance for us to get together, cook up a storm, and go shopping afterward. Everyone gets the day off work. You can’t see anything bad in that.
Joey: Thanksgiving for me and my family back home is, as it was growing up, the same as any other holiday. It’s an excuse for me to hang out with people that I care about and eat turkey and whatever else anyone brings. The only difference is that this time, I’m making the snide comments about colonization instead of just listening to them.
Hillel: It’s not just about education, Thanksgiving is a day of remembrance. It’s a day to look back and see how strong we are as a people. See how resilient we are! That no matter what the U.S. government and settlers have done to us and are still doing to us, we are still here and we are thriving.
For me, Thanksgiving is more of a day to hang out with each other. We all are very busy and travel a lot. We get together and catch up face to face, not on our text chain. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but for me it means nothing. I don’t think of it as a nice day. Its a terrible day with a terrible history that doesn’t get told.
My family eats together and takes that weekend off. We don’t “celebrate” per se, but we eat the standards and add in whatever else we feel like. I like my brother Ted’s prime rib, so I always hope he makes that.
Jacqueline: I see, in the “First Thanksgiving” story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale that needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that those actions have caused in the 400 years since: Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.
Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my Native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.
Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the goodwill that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle. And the healing can begin.