“Thanks-Taking” Day: How Native Americans Feel About Thanksgiving

25th November 2015

Back in July, as we celebrated Independence Day, we took a brief look back on the history of the holiday and how it particularly resonated with the original inhabitants of America: the Native Americans.  What we found, from whom we spoke to at least, was less than radical.

“I don’t recall being around any particular movement that was blocking the Fourth of July parade,” Jay Grimm, a member of the Navajo Tribe in Denver, told us, “which is interesting because that is different for Columbus Day where you’ll see a different approach, but I don’t see the parallel between the two.”

Grimm noted that he typically celebrates the holiday as anyone else might, because him and his people are the “original keepers of the land and as long as we’re here, we’ll defend it.”

But it was his comment about Columbus Day that made me curious. Obviously Native Americans don’t celebrate Columbus Day. In reality, no Americans should really celebrate Christopher Columbus.  He was all around a pretty awful guy who never actually landed in America nor was he even aware of its presence—but somehow became intertwined in the American narrative.

But what about Thanksgiving?

Here’s a holiday that we celebrate during Native American Heritage Month—a holiday on which we, Americans, celebrate, re-enact, and remember as marking the peaceful relationship between the white European settlers and indigenous peoples, but in reality marks the beginning of a long period of oppression, genocide, and land theft.  Where does this holiday land on the spectrum between Independence Day and Columbus Day?

“I think Thanksgiving is more along the lines of how people feel about Columbus Day,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, who was particularly open minded about the ways white Americans celebrated the Fourth of July.

For Cheryl, this is largely for two reasons—the first of which being that American Indians are celebrated as a memory.  The second would be that, on this holiday, the racial stereotypes run more rampant than usual.  We re-enact their existence with colorful headdresses, costumes and powwows. We eat foods that remind us of them and that early interaction between cultures without viewing it in its full context.

“There’s this sort of real surface culture that resonates with people,” she said, “and not a whole lot of thought about [whether or not] that’s an appropriate way to celebrate the living beings that indigenous people are today.”

For Cheryl, Thanksgiving is a time when she can gather with her family on this day—mostly just because everyone has off work and school—and reflect upon their history and how they’ve gotten to where they are today.

Dr. George “Tink” Tinker, a member of the Osage Nation and professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, had a different idea about the holiday and the traditions others take part in.

Tinker. Image.

“We tend to call it, here in Denver, Thanks-taking Day. My brother and a lot of Indians refer to it as a national day of mourning.”

Tinker elaborated, noting the undercurrent of violence that is a part of the culture of white Euro Christianity and how George Washington himself was an enemy of a great population of American Indians.

It was the Revolutionary War that caused the Iroquois Confederacy of the Ohio Valley. George Washington fought a war against both the British and on the Western front against Indians who were trying to be neutral. Washington, who was a land speculator that had investments in the Ohio Valley, repeatedly sent armies to completely wipe out Indian villages.

“So if you didn’t talk to Indians who were offended by the Fourth of July holiday,” Tinker said. “You talked to Indians whose minds have been colonized away from recognizing and remembering the violence of George Washington against Indian people.”

It’s all part of the falsely romantic American narrative, he stressed, and it’s much of the same for Thanksgiving—on which he was able to provide a truly eye-opening perspective.

A lot of American Indians who celebrate Thanksgiving forget that the first two formal governmental proclamations of a Thanksgiving Day were in New England when the General Council in Boston and the government at Plymouth City Council proclaimed a “Thanksgiving Day”—the first of all in 1637—to celebrate the massacre at Mystic.

Here they were able to attack an undefended village and murder 700 women, children and old people, calling the burning of the village “a sweet-smelling sacrifice to the Lord.” At the proclamation of Thanksgiving, they were able to again call upon God’s magnificence in giving them victory over their enemies.

“This is about land theft,” Tinker added.  “It’s about murdering people in order to take their land. That was the conquest against the Pequot Indians.”

Forty years later, in 1676, there was another formal proclamation of Thanksgiving.  This was after the war that the English had in fact created against the Metacomet people. After slaughtering them and wiping them off the face of the earth, they proclaimed, again, another Thanksgiving to their God.

It’s because of this, among many other similar occurrences, that Tinker urges, when we consider Thanksgiving, we ask ourselves: Thanksgiving for what?

Many of us believe Thanksgiving is simply a day to gather and give thanks.  We have Thanksgiving ceremonies and traditions all across our nation on this one particular day, yet we have 364 other days of the year left to do the same. Why must we do it on the day that Washington D.C. tells us that it’s mandated?

“Is it a religious holiday?” Tinker asks. “It’s not if you’re a strict constitutionalist and believe in the separation of church and state. So it has to be a political thanksgiving: a thanksgiving for the creation and the existence of this nation called the United States, which is our colonizer.”

Food for thought on this day of reflection.