This week I’m featuring a guest blog from a long-time friend who educates people around the world about Native American heritage. She is no I’ve-got-a-chip-downtrodden-type. Claudia Fox Tree eloquently reminds us that their story – her story – is an important part of this country’s heritage and culture. It is, in fact, all around us. And, sadly, most of us have learned it all wrong. On Thanksgiving, I felt it appropriate to deviate from the traditional turkey and pilgrim mythology to more properly reflect the real story.
Stories are often referred to as “powerful.” Whenever I hear comments like that, I tend to put my doubting Thomas hat on; it sounds suspiciously full of puffery and almost commercial-like. Let the buyer beware. But in this case, the phrase really does live up to its claim. Stories inform our values and beliefs – and, ultimately, our culture.
The “brand” of Thanksgiving is big business, reinforced by a century and a half of fictitious narrative. It leads me to wonder: as Americans, does this serve us well? Do we have an obligation to tell a story with authenticity? You can draw your own conclusions, but this guest post highlights a letter from Claudia to her son’s coach.
Perhaps it will make you stop and reflect on her story when you give thanks this week.
Pies for Thanksgiving
Dear Sports Club,
This is your Native American student’s mom. He’s an 8th grader on your sport’s team. He’s had a great year, loves his coaches, and is looking forward to playing the game in high school.
Last year, I was able to attend more of your booster meetings. This year, my schedule has conflicted with the meeting dates. I knew this day would eventually come, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. Last year, his team didn’t have to fund raise by selling “pies for Thanksgiving,” but this year they do.
I believe it is important to understand different perspectives and to listen to multiple “voices,” particularly when they describe the way a culture has been and continues to be oppressed in this society. It’s not anyone’s “fault” that we have inadequate and incorrect information, but it is our responsibility to think about our practices once we have new information.
Thanksgiving is not a joyous celebration for us. It is a reminder of the ways Native Americans have had our histories erased, been objectified, included only as stereotypes, and been excluded as real people who are contemporary, living and breathing, just to name a few of the things this holiday conjures.
There was an event in 1621, but to refer to it as “The First Thanksgiving” completely obliterates the Native American people who lived (and continue to live) on this continent for thousands of years celebrating “thanksgivings” every day. Frequently, sitcoms, newscasters, and comedians, like late night talk show hosts, have skits which poke fun at Native Americans by dressing up, talking in “ugh” language, or doing some other offensive shtick.
We aren’t even seen as members of our own Nations, just as “Indians.” Just two weeks ago, images of the Redskins’ caricature warrior graced the front page of the Boston Globe and the phrase “Cowboys and Indians” in “western-style” font headlined the Boston Herald. What this says to me and many other Native Americans is “We think of you as characters, and maybe you might as well be on one of those ‘Most Wanted’ posters of long ago because that’s where you belong anyway.” This is just plain not respectful.
Our family typically spends what is known as “Thanksgiving” fasting and then attending the Annual Day of Remembrance (aka known as “Day of Mourning”) in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is a quote from the Pilgrim Hall website which summarizes what this day is about:
On Thanksgiving Day, many Native Americans and their supporters gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for the “National Day of Mourning.” The first National Day of Mourning was held in 1970. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James to deliver a speech. When the text of Mr. James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known before the event, the Commonwealth “disinvited” him. That silencing of a strong and honest Native voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning. The historical event we know today as the “First Thanksgiving” was a harvest festival held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors and allies. It has acquired significance beyond the bare historical facts. Thanksgiving has become a much broader symbol of the entirety of the American experience. Many find this a cause for rejoicing. The dissenting view of Native Americans, who have suffered the theft of their lands and the destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the American nation, is equally valid. To some, the “First Thanksgiving” presents a distorted picture of the history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People across America is nowhere represented.
In 1637, “soldiers” from the Dutch and English massacred of 700 Pequot men, women and children as they were having their annual Green Corn festival. The Europeans burned everything and everyone, shooting potential survivors. The Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared and signed into law the “First Thanksgiving,” giving thanks for the elimination of the Pequots.
Thanksgiving is not a wonderful harvest celebration for us. Mostly, it represents a history of cultural and physical genocide.
Selling pies is not the issue. Selling pies for Thanksgiving is highly problematic. And, making it mandatory certainly is. Now, I have explained to my son that it is his choice as to what he does, but I cannot support colluding in one’s own oppression. If he chooses to sell the pies, I hope he will not be congratulated for “supporting the team,” since it will be at the expense of his Native American ancestors, heritage, and dignity.
Ed. Note: This post and other information can be found on Claudia’s blog “Native American Resources.” Here you will find recommended resources compiled by Massachusetts-based educator Claudia A. FoxTree, M.Ed. for the courses she teaches about the Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere. She addresses a broad range of issues with a focus on her Nation, The Arawak.