A Thanksgiving Message from Seven Amazing Native Americans

November is Native American Heritage month. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This month is supposedly for our nation to acknowledge indigenous history, tradition, and knowledge. We are supposed to honor the indigenous land upon which we live; we are meant to celebrate peace between nations and cultures.

But the real truth is that we are not in a time of peace and “Thanksgiving” is a historical fallacy.

I asked seven rad Natives (who have been photographed by Project 562) to share perspectives on Thanksgiving and the current state of our nation. I appreciate their willingness to be honest, to share their knowledge, and all that they do for our communities.

Dr. Adrienne Keen, Cherokee Nation

I’m sitting at the airport the day before this weird holiday that we call Thanksgiving wearing a shirt that reads “This is Native Land.” I keep sitting up straighter and pushing my shoulders back, daring the folks walking by to look, to read it, and to reflect. I’m frankly out of words right now. I’m exhausted. I’ve spent the last two and a half months traveling all over the country talking to college students and communities about Native representations. I met amazing students doing good work, but I also faced, over and over, deep, and in many ways, carefully orchestrated ignorance about Native peoples. I heard faculty members try to white mansplain Native history to me, I heard new age “allies” ask why they weren’t allowed to host vision quests and naming ceremonies, I had college football players try and justify the Washington Redsk*ns to my face. But I know, or at least I hope, that I opened eyes and shifted ways of thinking. I wouldn’t keep doing this if I didn’t have that hope. Education and teaching is powerful. 

But three days ago I also watched as a bridge in Cannonball, ND, in a community of water protectors I had just left, was turned into a warzone. I cried in my bed with my computer on my lap as a water cannon rained down in icy sheets on protectors I know and love, I watched my friends panicked livestreams, and my sister-colleague sent me images that looked straight out of a horror film, noting she was ok because she was just “mildly” tear gassed. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t, really. 

I’m trying to have hope. I’m trying to think about the resistance born in me and other protectors these past months. But it’s so hard. I instead keep thinking about the thousands of elementary school students stapling paper feathers to construction paper headdresses, being taught a story of “friendship” and “community,” of “pilgrims” and “Indians,” erasing the genocide that came along with that colonization. The genocide we survived, only in 2016 to be maced, shot, and water hosed for protecting those same lands that so generously provided you that “harvest” dinner. 

Thanksgiving has always felt hollow to me in my adult life. But this year feels even more so. But I’m just going to return to the phrase on my shirt. This is Native Land. It will always be Native land, and I am grateful for that. I will continue to fight for this land, I will continue to educate others about this land, and I will pray for this land. And yes, tomorrow, I’m going to eat some mother effing turkey. But not in honor of some mythic coming together of Natives and colonizers. Because it’s delicious. The fight will still be there after that turkey, and I’ll be ready. 

-Adrienne Keene

+++ Dr. Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation) is a Native scholar, writer, blogger, and activist, and is passionate about reframing how the world sees contemporary Native cultures. She is the creator and author of Native Appropriations, a blog discussing cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Native peoples in fashion, film, music, and other forms of pop culture.

Malia Kahaleʻinia Chun, Hawaiian

Me, I’m just a mom on a tiny island, in the middle of the pacific and as I sip my tea I think about the holiday Americans call Thanksgiving.  I’m not thinking about ovens roasting over-stuffed turkeys, or the smell of pumpkin pie baking or the endless sales that feed our consumer appetites….no, I’m thinking about the thousands of faces of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children being brutalized.  These faces are 3,652 miles away, but in them, I see my own mother, father, brothers, sisters…my own children.  You see, I am Hawaiian and I too understand the pull and ache one feels to protect the sacred, to protect life, to protect our ancestors and our descendants.  For native people, this pull and ache is not a choice.

Back in 1842, a young Hawaiian by the name of, Timoteo Haʻalilo felt this same pull and ache of responsibility, Hawaiians call “kuleana”, which drove this young Hawaiian across the world to gain European recognition for the independence of the Hawaiian nation.   Haʻalilo was successful and Hawaiʻi became the first, non-European, indigenous nation to be recognized within the League of Nations.  Sadly, Haʻalilo died before his return home, but to honor his efforts Hawaiians declared November 28, 1842 Hawaiian Independence Day or Lā Kūokoʻa.  After the illegal overthrow of Hawaiʻiʻs kingdom in 1893, colonizers  banned Lā Kūokoʻa and replaced it with what we now call, Thanksgiving, in hopes of forever erasing Hawaiianʻs history of independence from the minds of its descendants.  

As for me, a mom, on a tiny island, in the middle of the pacific…on the day Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, I celebrate Lā Kūokoʻa, Hawaiian Independence Day and I think of my Native American brothers and sisters 3,652 miles away fighting for what is sacred and essential to human survival…Land and Water and I sharpen my spear and prepare for the pull and ache of ancestral obligation.

-Malia Kahaleʻinia Chun

+++ Malia is a Hawaiian mother, activist, cultural practitioner, and educator.

Simon Moya Smith, Lakota

Thanksgiving is nothing less an annual white victory lap. It’s a celebration of aggressive Christian domination and imperialism. Any other description is P.C.

The holiday, as presented, is an affront to inexorable truth and history as it occurred. Indeed, the Thanksgiving narrative belies the rape and murder and genocide that was committed against this continent’s first peoples – men, women, and children. Instead of a day of gluttony and excess, the day should be reserved to honor Native Americans; recognize that the U.S. committed incalculable atrocities against us because we weren’t white Christians. Native Americans should be lauded for our continued resilience and fortitude. To bury the truth behind what Thanksgiving means to Native Americans does nothing but set us back as a country. It’s time this nation faces the facts about its actions, its crimes – the ones they’ve committed, and continue to commit.

+++ Simon Moya-Smith, 33, is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, a journalist and activist. Follow Simon on Twitter.

Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag

As a Wampanoag woman at this time of year I am especially mindful of where our journey began, the lessons learned from what we have endured, and what we have kept sacred despite all we have lost. For nearly 400 years they have tried to erase us from the land without realizing how impossible that is. We are the land, the land is us, and We Are Still Here. We are also the water, and if you haven’t heard this by now you should know, water is life, and if we lose it, we won’t survive. Standing Rock may be thousands of miles away, but I can feel the collective heart beat of those water protectors as they live another day of sacrifice to honor the earth and her resources. I can feel the sting of the mace, the whack of the club, the bite of the dog, the icy blast of cold water in my face as I refuse to back down because ironically, Water is Life. You can’t use it to kill me unless you take it away. The atrocities being committed against the Water Protectors in Standing Rock are all taking place as America is supposed to be honoring Native Americans this entire month and gathering on a holiday meant to acknowledge our welcoming spirit and generosity. The hypocrisy is mind bending especially when you consider that the unified voice of every tribe in this country, our First Nations neighbors in Canada, people around the globe, and the many thousands of individuals who have sacrificed their family lives, their creature comforts and livelihoods have been sharing the same peaceful yet passionate message, Water is Life. It is actually become a symbolic slogan for a much greater and more universal campaign to rescue our earth from corporate greed and despite that social media has carried this message around the planet, no one who matters seems to be listening. Still the world watches as the networks, the newspapers, the CEOs, the politicians and leaders of the free world ignore the obvious. Water is Life. The biggest challenge that we face today, the biggest challenge to justice of any kind, is that we no longer have a strong and fortified Fourth Estate, an independent news media that is supposed to answer to no one but the people. We no longer can be assured of the voice once promised in a balanced and fair media that is now controlled and manipulated to advocate for and entertain corporate interests. The media ignores us as if they are baiting us to become violent because shooting law enforcement brings cameras faster than blood dries on the pavement. But the water protectors remain loyal to their peaceful calling despite the antagonistic behaviors that would entice many others to violence. So this season, short of setting up camp myself on the Cannonball River, I am grateful that the water protectors continue to endure this deplorable treatment because as indigenous people there is no choice. We are the land, the land is us and Water is Life.

-Paula Peters

+++Paula Peters is a journalist, educator, activist and blogger.. A member of the Wampanoag tribe, she has spent most of her life in her tribal homeland of Mashpee, Massachusetts and she recently published The Mashpee Nine. Learn more about Paula on her website.

Naahaan, Tlingit

For the past 8 or 9 years I’ve done my best to go without food on the so called “thanksgiving holiday”. This fast I’ve done is to remind myself to be more prayerful and to honor the sacrifices made by Indigenous people near and far. This fast is for the Indigenous people today who go without food, not because of some privileged decision but because they cannot afford basic means of sustenance, or because their water or living situations are in unhealthy conditions. Ever since first contact with invader nations from Europe, our quality of life as Indigenous people has decreased. In fact it has been speculated that our entire population has only a remaining 2% of its initial sustainable, non-polluting way of life. The so called “thanksgiving” as well as many other nationally celebrated holidays in the “united snakes of amerikkka” signify the forced change of what we are told to deem as valuable and worthy of celebration. I personally have been to visit the Oceti Sakowin three times. I have seen a very clear divide between those who care-take for the land, defending it by any means necessary- and the militarized corporate, illegal and inhumane approach of those behind the Dakota Access Pipeline- the National Guard, police force, security, state and national government. This is a clear wake up call to each and everyone: to remember any sense of critical thinking and humanity that we have inside of us. Let that awakening lead to an active stance on Indigenous issues such as what is taking place at Standing Rock, Lelu island, Wetsuten and Unistoten resistances as well as those to the south of the colonial borders that have attempted to separate Native nations.

Now is the time we must take an active stance on issues to protect the water, the future, wombyn and children.

Think about all the people who have been fired from their jobs or quit their jobs to lend solidarity with the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Nations. A personal goal of mine is to have my descendants know that I did something worth remembering in the time I was able to walk this beautiful mother earth. A major part of that is deciphering the reality from the illusion we are led to believe as life.

My hands are raised to each of the water protectors, the land protectors, the sky protectors, the future protectors. I love you all.

+++Nahaan’s Indigenous lineage is of the Tlingit, Inupiaq of Alaska and Paiute of California. He focuses exclusively on working within the spirit and design style of the Northwest Coast practices and customs of ceremonial tattooing, wood carving, silver jewlery carving, painting and custom designing of regalia and tattoos. Nahaan emulates the strong visual and oral storytelling that has been handed down from generation to generation, it’s the foundation of his work, way of living and teaching of his cultural traditions. To learn more please visit his website.

Jaclyn Roessel, Dine’

Diné believe and practice principles of K’é, the understanding we are not only related in kinship to each other but through the connections to one another we have a civic responsibility to each other. K’é tells us when one of us is sick we all are sick, when one of us is lacking or unhealthy it impacts us all. We are meant to live in poetic reciprocity with each other and Nahasdzaan Shímá/Mother Earth through ACTIVE HOPE. Looking at the various challenges facing our communities we need to move beyond just hoping for a better future for our people, for our youth. We need to continue to act to create it. We need to pair our hope with actions. Actions aligned with our values as Diné or other Bilá ashlaadii/five-fingered people. We have seen what happenings when actions are not thoughtful, we are left with a society so detached from the understandings everything has an origin, every action has an impact. When we are able to act within our communities for the betterment of others, we will speak sacredness fluently. Speaking sacredness fluently is expanding our beings to stretch beyond the knowledge we have today. It is a practice aimed at realizing we are always becoming and always able to give more of ourselves to each other. We are born with the potential to be naataanii/leaders, but not in the non-native sense of being a person central in power but being a person who owns their power in community-ship – the essence of being, acting with the principles of K’é. This is the time shík’é/my relatives to act in the teachings of K’é to harness, cultivate and create a society who speaks sacredness fluently. We are resilient multiverses, brimming with the light of millions of ancestors and descendants, capable of walking this path draped in sacredness and power. I believe in us…yéego/go, try harder.  

+++Born and raised on the Navajo Nation, Jaclyn Roessel is the founder of the blog of Grown Up Navajo. As a museum professional and cultural producer she creates project which celebrate American Indian knowledge and their creativity.

When I had the privilege of visiting my Wampanoag relatives they shared the real story of Thanksgiving with me. Paula Peters explained, “The story of grateful Pilgrims and happy Indians breaking bread and celebrating the first successful colonial harvest has been the fairy tale Americans have long preferred over the truth. The original harvest feast that inspired the Thanksgiving holiday was in fact an impromptu gathering that one might say was more an act of diplomacy and show of force by Wampanoag Massasoit, Oosameequan (that was his name meaning yellow feather). The single paragraph and only primary source reference to the event penned by Edward Winslow remarks that “Oosameequan arrived uninvited with 90 men who remained for three days and contributed deer and foul”- which may or may not have included a turkey. While the brief description has conjured up Norman Rockwell images depicting a long table piled high with food and grog and flanked by friendly Pilgrims and Indians- more scholarly interpretations perceive it as evidence of an early tenuous alliance still being tested. Furthermore, the giving of thanks that has endured from that event is in fact a tradition not exclusive to one day a year for the Wampanoag and indigenous people across this nation. It is our custom to acknowledge all the gifts our creator bestows from the hunted, to the fished, to the harvested as they are received. But our spirituality including ceremony conducted outside of the confines of a church, and worship of our natural environment including the winged and four legged creatures was lost on the colonizers who determined our customs to be savagery. Ironically those pious pilgrims who came here for religious freedom wasted no time forcing their beliefs upon us, their hypocrisy sanctioned by a papal bull called the Doctrine of Discovery. It didn’t take long - less than 50 years - for the thankful to become thankless and the pious to become oppressors.”

Thanksgiving, (the holiday), always feels ironic to me. As a Native woman that believes strongly in the transformative power of story-telling, and as a dreamer that has dedicated her entire life to telling real stories from Indian Country in an effort to building cultural bridges and abandon stereotypes- to celebrate and re-tell the imagined story of Thanksgiving feels more than ironic, it feels wrong. It feels like I’m condoning the ongoing injustice in our communities, abandoning the fight to protect the sacred, encouraging indigenous erasure.

That does not mean, however, that I’m un-gateful (or that I don’t love my Mother’s fresh bread on Thanksgiving morning). I am so grateful to live this beautiful life, to know such wonderful people, and to have the opportunity to drink clean water, breathe fresh air, and feel the strength of my ancestors in our ground. So today, I give thanks for our water protectors in Standing Rock. I give thanks for indigenous resistance. I give thanks for the opportunity to know the truth.

Relatives. I send this message out as an ask: join me in changing the way we see Native America. Let’s start telling the truth about the history of this country. The path to reconciliation starts with honest acknowledgement of our past, with open eyes, and open hearts for a better future.

Yours truly,

Matika Wilbur

Swinomish  & Tulalip, Project 562