WASHINGTON – The iconic Thanksgiving image of colonists and Indians sharing a feast has become the symbol of caring and cooperation among peoples, but for many Native Americans it is a reminder of betrayal, bloodshed and continuing discrimination.
“It’s a day of mourning,” said William Redwing Tayac, chief of one of Maryland’s indigenous tribes, the Piscataway Indian Nation. “Indians are victims of the American holocaust. That’s the truth. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture.”
The popular conception of the first Thanksgiving of 1621 is a myth, he said. Indians taught colonists how to farm and survive in the new frontier, only to be burned at the stake several years later as the first victims of the Salem witch trials, Tayac said. The tribes of Massachusetts still have demonstrations on Thanksgiving.
Tayac pays tribute to his people on Thanksgiving Day. He fasts during the day with his family and performs a sacred harvest ceremony before sitting down to dinner in the evening. If they have turkey, that’s just because it’s traditional Indian food, he said.
His fight for his people continues well beyond the holiday. Tayac is involved in a “de-anglization” program that takes assimilated American Indians and “brings them back to being Indians,” he said. They are taught the culture, religion, history and traditions of their people.
Joseph Stands With Many, a Cherokee Indian from Baltimore, is not as angry about Thanksgiving as Tayac.
“Once a year people think about Indians then they forget about them,” said Stands With Many. “Some people are militant and get bitter during Thanksgiving. I don’t believe in holding on to things like that.”
But some things still irritate him.
“Why does American Indian Heritage Month have to be in November?” he asked. And why do people use those cut-out decorations of Indians and Pilgrims?
“No one wants to believe that it is offensive,” he said. “It continues the subliminal stereotype.”
Stands With Many has complained about those decorations at his son’s school, but the school board has refused to take them off the walls.
He has turned his frustration into an education opportunity — giving up his 9-to-5 job to tell Cherokee stories to elementary school children, including a performance last year at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Giving thanks is a cycle of ceremonies for Stands With Many and his family. It begins with the planting season and ends with the harvest. But Thanksgiving Day is usually spent with his mother.
“Last year Mom and I went to McDonalds,” he said. “Sometimes we have Chinese food.”
Desiree Shelley’s family has observed Thanksgiving for generations, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand the protests of fellow Indians who don’t.
A native of Baltimore, Shelley has roots in the Monacan tribe of Virginia. Her father is part Monacan, a tribe that was “Christianized” shortly after the Jamestown colonization in the early 1600s, she said.
“Even if some American Indians celebrate (the holiday), there is a prevailing feeling of hurt for a lot of people,” Shelley said. “We have all been assimilated and colonized. We have lost our history, our language and our culture. What do you expect?”
Thanksgiving has little meaning for Shelley. It’s just a day to get together with family and have a nice meal, she said.
“The concept is not inherently bad,” she added. “I wouldn’t want to get rid of it.”
As president of the American Indian Student Union at the University of Maryland, Shelley, too, wants to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to educate.
She unsuccessfully tried to find grant money this year for education outreach to elementary and middle school children, but she is looking at other opportunities for next year that would redress the American Indian experience.
It is the historical distortions, the cultural stereotypes and general ignorance about indigenous peoples that makes Thanksgiving somewhat revolting to American Indians, said Keith Colston, executive director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs. Most do not celebrate Thanksgiving. If they do, it’s not based on today’s thoughts and ideas about the holiday, he said.
“For me personally, it is another day to get together with friends and family,” said Colston, a member of the Tuscarora-Lumbee tribe of North Carolina.
But for everyone who does celebrate it, he advised: “People should know the historical background of the holidays they celebrate. Native Americans shared a feast with the Pilgrims and gave thanks for the bounty of food and for each other’s company. But Thanksgiving after that was a betrayal.”