“Do Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?”
I am asked this question at least once every fall. Which, by the way, is too many times.
The answer is that my family (though I can’t speak for the other 5 million Indigenous people in America) doesn’t. Not the “brave-pilgrims-and-friendly-savages” version of the holiday, anyway. Twenty or 30 of us might gather under the same roof to share a meal. We’ll thank the creator for our blessings.
But that could be true of any Thursday night in a Wampanoag house.
Wish any of us a “Happy Thanksgiving” today and we’re liable to cut you off and say, “You mean the National Day of Mourning?”
In fact, there are quite a few autumn traditions that the Indigenous people of this country have to keep our distance from. Halloween, of course, means non-Natives dressed in tacky renderings of our traditional regalia. Then there’s football season, and hearing the name of the Washington, D.C., NFL team (which, among other meanings, refers to an Indian scalp sold for bounty.)
The whole hot mess that is “Columbus Day.”
“Fall is the annual middle finger this country gives Native Americans,” says Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist from the Oglala Lakota Nation who lives in New York City.
At the very least, it’s a disorienting time to be Indigenous. Images of Native people are everywhere: greeting cards, football helmets and elementary school pageants with paper-bag vests and historical imprecision.
At this time of year, it’s these long-haired, buckskin wearing presumptions of how Indians should look and behave that get mainstream exposure. Not our humanity.
For Moya-Smith, fall brings a steady stream of requests from media organizations for him to answer questions like, “What’s wrong with wearing a headdress on Halloween?”
“It’s an onslaught,” he says. “One thing after another.”
Come wintertime, though, Native issues and experiences fade back into the margins and Moya-Smith says he has to fight for the chance to publish his reporting on issues like police brutality in Native communities.
Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, who writes a blog about appropriations of Indigenous cultures and experiences, agrees.
“There’s kind of a running joke among folks who deal with representation that fall is the absolute worst,” she says. Web traffic on her blog picks up in the fall. Each year, she says, so does a flood of hostility into the comments section and her Twitter mentions.
“It’s the same arguments every time, which is frustrating,” Keene explains. Some commenters, for example, insist that they’re “honoring” Native people by wearing redface to tailgates and Halloween parties. Most often, she adds, they argue that Indians have “bigger problems” to worry about.
But for Keene, those “bigger” problems — poverty, environmental racism, the epidemic of sexual violence against Native women — can’t be separated from the way Indigenous people are portrayed and perceived.
“We’re asking our lawmakers in D.C. to engage with Native peoples on a nation-to-nation basis — to understand our sovereignty, to understand our treaty rights,” she says. “But the only image they see every day of Native peoples is this disembodied head accompanied by a racial slur.”
As a powerful example, she cites the standoff last year over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. There, she says, the Native activists who fought against the project were portrayed “like wild savages out on the plains on their horses, with their tipis … and they were met with a militarized police force and police brutality.”
To her, the link is obvious: “So when we’re fighting about mascots and Halloween costumes, it’s really a fight to be seen as human.”
At Dartmouth, my alma-mater, Native students gather at midnight on the second Monday of October to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.
We round dance. We thank our ancestors for surviving genocide. We tell the campus community that Columbus was the real savage.
Each year, I would think to myself, “Indians must be the most resilient people on Earth.” On that awful federal holiday, in the middle of such a miserable season, we found a way to be joyful. My junior year, we woke up the day after our celebration to find flyers scattered across campus advertising shirts, phone cases, thongs, flasks — all emblazoned with our school’s long-defunct Indian-head mascot.
The flyers read: “Hate Political correctness? Love Dartmouth? Don’t want the old traditions to fail? Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day all year round with vintage Dartmouth Indian gear!”
To be Indigenous in fall is to feel hyper-exposed and, at the same time, invisible. It is wondering why your teacher is talking about Native Americans in the past tense when you’re sitting right in front of him. It is seeing a cartoon caricature of yourself on the T-shirt of a neighbor or classmate or co-worker, and wondering, “Is that what they really think of me?”
Take tomorrow: a federal holiday meant to honor Native people and, in theory, the perfect opportunity to rectify some of this harm. And yet, many Americans won’t be wishing one another “Happy Native American Heritage Day” while they fight over the last discounted flat screen at the mall.
“Black Friday?” My grandmother shouted at the TV in 2008 when we learned that President George W. Bush had chosen the Friday after Thanksgiving to celebrate us. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
One last measure of insult heaped atop a season’s worth of injury.
Savannah Maher is an NPR news assistant and a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation.
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