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Thanksgiving & Indigenous People

November is Native American Heritage Month & today is Thanksgiving Day. While I do believe we should celebrate all that we are thankful for, I also think it's important to reflect on the history of this holiday, as well as the history of America's indigenous people that is not as well known or discussed.

In elementary school, a friend helped me collect and enter my family history through ancestry .com. I traced back my genealogy as far as I could and found that there's a high probability that I had relatives on the Mayflower. As a child, I thought this was neat and, in fact, very probable since I am partly English on my mother's side. It also supported why my great-grandmother only knew that her mother's family had been in America for a long time, but she hadn't been sure about when exactly they traveled to the U.S. Perhaps I had relatives who were involved in this first Thanksgiving day where Pilgrims celebrated the harvest of the fall growing season.

In my senior year of college, I took a course titled Native American Philosophies to fulfill a liberal education credit. We were assigned several books to read during the semester; one turned out to be my favorite book ever. I remember opening Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and reading the first chapter on the story of Turtle Island and Sky Woman. By the end of the chapter, I found myself bawling my eyes out. I was hooked on her sweet poetry and the descriptive, loving words she used to explain her connection with the land. At this point, I had been dating George for a little over two years. He's an outdoorsy guy, and when I visited him in the Upper Penisula of Michigan, most of our short weekends together were spent adventuring outside. I had been living in Minneapolis, far removed from the great woods of the northland where I had grown up. I craved this time in nature, and finally, with Kimmerer's words, I could put my feelings into context. Kimmerer is a poet, botanist, science professor, and Potawatomi. Her writing is a love letter to Mother Earth & I wish everyone could have the chance to read it, as well as other works from other Native Americans.

Now, no group of people is perfect. But I do believe we could learn a lot from listening to the Indigenous people of this land. I see more representation of Native voices throughout media and literature each year, but I think we have a long way to go before we achieve fair representation. And this is because Native people are still here. They never left, despite our country's best efforts to erase them.

This brings me to a story I remember reading while in my college course. It was about a Native American boy raised in a boarding school. An optional activity on a Friday night for native children living at a boarding school included watching movies. Some of these movies included shows about cowboys and Indians, where often Native Americans were depicted as savages. These films were only from the context and lens of white film producers, never from the perspective of an Indigenous person. For this boy and many other children raised in boarding schools, this was the only image they knew of about their heritage: the image of an Indian as a savage. They weren't allowed to learn of and practice their indigenous ways, and after leaving school, most did not know their native tongue, and so began the divide between themselves and their lineage of people, and in turn, their heritage. They became the whitewashed versions the government wanted, yet they were still not treated as though they belonged in this land. They continued to be shamed and unwelcome for not fitting the white, narrow-minded, idyllic standards the colonizers imposed. To add injury to insult, we continued to suppress their right to pass along their teachings and perform religious ceremonies, including powwows. Government laws made it illegal for Native Americans to participate in celebrations and meet-ups until 1951. Yet, at the same time, state schools and universities were never stopped from having mascots of "Redskins" wearing headdresses, stomping around football fields for entertainment sake. If I experienced half the pain and suffering that colonizers inflicted on Indigenous people, I am not sure I would have survived. Yet, these people have endured.

So, I think back to that first Thanksgiving day when Native Americans lent a helping hand to the Pilgrims and allowed them to live on their land because they knew that not one group of people owned this earth. I wonder if Natives saw only the differences between themselves and the Europeans and looked down upon them in pity. Or if they saw fellow human beings in need of support. If they had known what would happen to them and all other Native Americans over the next 400 years, would they have still decided to help?

So, whether you directly benefited from the exploitation of Indigenous people or not - which, if you are living on any land in the Eastern hemisphere, you have - I encourage you to think of how you can do better than your ancestors. Though you were not directly involved in the infliction of these pains and sufferings per se, nor were you a part of the government that created laws to suppress Native Americans, you have still benefited from the mistreatment of Natives and the generational wealth and success that ensued from their exploitation. And to this, I will say the feelings of guilt and shame as a white person can be uncomfortable, and that is okay because the discomfort that comes from the generational trauma for Native Americans is worse and should not be brushed away for comfort's sake.

So, how can we extend a hand to Indigenous people today? I think the best place to start is by listening to the Native voices still in this land.

This list is not exhaustive, but here are some ideas of where to start -

Read the article on The Nation: Should America Keep Celebrating Thanksgiving? -

Read works by Indigenous writers and authors -

View this map to see what Native tribes had lived on the land where you currently reside -

Educate yourself on the history of Native Americans and the mistreatment of them by the U.S. government.

Support and buy from Native artists, as well as follow them on social media -

Look for media that portrays & includes Native American people.

Volunteer, support, and/or donate to local indigenous community centers or reservations.

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