In fall 1620, Pilgrims moved onto land occupied by the Wampanoag people in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. A year later tribal members and Pilgrims gathered on a day that is now recognized as Thanksgiving. It was an event that foreshadowed the history of colonization between tribes and settlers, and changed the direction of American history.
This year is the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving. Indigenous people in the Inland Northwest – including two activists, a health organizer, an artist and a retired medical professor – reflected on the day and its legacy.
Jonathan Kane, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and a descendant of the Catawba and Cherokee tribes, is a multimedia artist living in Spokane who sees Thanksgiving as a “Martha Stewart holiday” where truths are “swept under the rug.” For Kane, honesty has “never been part of the history we were taught in school.”
“Everything about this holiday is so commercialized and consumer-like,” he said. “It’s not real, so I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t hate Thanksgiving or Christmas at all, but the history of it should be told accurately, and it would change the tone of it.”
While growing up on a reservation, Kane remembers inaccurate depictions of the Native community in shows, newspapers and other forms of media, including history books. It fueled him to become a multimedia artist in charge of the Native narrative while finding ways to incorporate truths that aren’t discussed. Now with two sons, ages 5 and 9, he turns his attention to teaching them about their ancestry.
“When I explain history stuff to my (older son), I try not to state it as white people but the government and whatnot,” Kane said. “My son does not like violence, so I want to show him films that are a more honest representation of Thanksgiving.”
When asked about Thanksgiving, Tai Simpson, of the Nez Perce Tribe, referred to it as “Thankstaking.” Simpson is an activist and storyteller.
“The Indigenous community uses humor to defuse super-painful histories and scenarios, so cracking a joke is one of our ways of doing that,” Simpson said. “People are always awkward around me about Thanksgiving, so we always make a cheeky joke.”
The holiday itself is no laughing matter for Simpson. It speaks to the layered discrimination that inaccurately depicts Indigenous people, she said.
“What Native children are taught at home is so much more vast and so much more inclusive of who our people are, versus kind of just like Western white settler colonial standard of education that they’re getting out of their school books,” she said.
Simpson’s mother taught her about Thanksgiving outside of the classroom..
Simpson recalled a painful memory of when, sometime in second or third grade, her class went on a field trip to understand settlers’ everyday lives. They didn’t touch on the accurate relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers.
“Everyone was supposed to dress up as a settler and I told them, ‘I’m just going to wear my Indigenous regalia’ that was really loud, and it was fantastic,” Simpson said. “It was an act of political defiance in the face of (the school system). I’m not going to dress up like white people who stole my land.”
As an adult, Simpson is frustrated that Black Friday is wrapped into Thanksgiving. The idea of showing gratitude one day and engaging in consumerism the next doesn’t align with Indigenous values.
“On a day-to-day basis, we wake up, pray, offer gratitude, ask for abundance, joy and love, and give thanks to our ancestors, honoring our descendants,” Simpson said.
Toni Lodge is the director of the Native Project, a federally qualified health center and urban Indian health clinic. Lodge is a citizen of the Turtle Mountain-Chippewa Tribe.
As the Native Project distributed COVID-19 shots, Lodge felt thankful for health amid the pandemic, something her Indigenous faith honors.
“It wasn’t just one day a year, it was every time the planet Earth gave us those things to feed our communities with. We always give thanks. We still do,” she said.
Lodge carries no ill will toward the holiday. Her only requirement when detailing the meaning of Thanksgiving is accuracy.
For Lodge, if America is a melting pot that “lives off the back of the rich history and contributions from lots of people,” then why is its history told from a point of view that often inaccurately describes its effect on communities of color?
“The truth really does set you free, so why would we not (tell it)?” she asked.
Lodge uses her role as a community leader to teach about Indigenous history, including the first mass protest against Thanksgiving, in which Indigenous activists occupied Plymouth Rock on the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower in 1970 and occupied Mount Rushmore in 1971.
“We teach kids the truth in history, but we need to (figure out how to) teach whose history,” Lodge said.
Michael Marchand was a participant of the protest. He was a student at a New Hampshire boarding school, scooped up by American Indian Movement activists. He remembers prominent AIM leaders such as Richard Oakes and John Trudell calling Indigenous children into action and carpooling with a woman to get from New Hampshire to Massachusetts.
“In the 1960s and ’50s there was a proactive U.S. policy that we’re trying to move Natives into cities and we’re trying to rub out reservations altogether, so AIM was an urban movement,” Marchand said. “There were so many things flaring up in the country, and racist activities taking place and things of that nature. Even in the rural areas and urban areas, there were acts of racism against tribes.”
Marchand is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and served on the tribal council for almost 20 years. While teaching at Eastern Washington University, he served on the Northwest Tribal Local Technical Assistance Program.
Remembering AIM’s use of word-of-mouth to pass news about the protest in the ’70s, he hopes social media and tech advancements can help change narratives today. He also likens the potential change to Thanksgiving to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Persons campaign, which caught steam through social media and took form on and off the screens.
“Now tribal individuals can speak for themselves,” Marchand said. “Social media gives them a soap box speaker, and now almost anyone can start giving speeches and organizing.”
As a youth community organizer and public speaker, these are some of the responsibilities that Ivy Pete, an Indigenous activist and North Central High School senior, has taken on. Pete, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, was instrumental in getting two Spokane public schools to change their mascots from the Indians and Braves.
“We’re seeing a lot of change, a lot of movement towards proper education around Native identity,” she said. “And so I have a younger sister as well, and she’s a freshman, and her Native studies were even different from mine.”
With Thanksgiving activities in the classroom, Pete feels it is her responsibility to “share accurate history” with her peers without centering white privilege or guilt in her explanations. This is an important asset to changing Thanksgiving narratives in the future as, she says, centering Indigenous people opens up the “possibilities for wider tools to learn and have leaders who see change in different formats, strategies and ways.”
“The school curriculum does not do it for us, unfortunately,” Pete said.