Nov 21, 2023 - Holidays

Indigenizing Thanksgiving

A statue of a man with a one-feather headdress above people with their heads bowed.

People marking the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving in 2021 gathered by the statue of Chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Photo: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images

Native Americans are holding public and private events here and around the country this week, transforming traditional Thanksgiving gatherings with Indigenous food and alternative meanings.

Why it matters: Thanksgiving has become a target in recent years for Native Americans who seek to retell the story of the U.S. holiday from their points of view.

What they're saying: "For many people in our community, my family included, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning," Eva Red Bird, a Portlander and descendant of the Sioux Hunkpapa Lakota and Yankton Dakota tribes, tells Axios.

  • She combats generations of pain by working to "indigenize" public spaces and attitudes, by highlighting "the beautiful things and the rich aspects of our culture that we did contribute and we still contribute."

What's happening: In Portland, the Native American Youth and Family Center is hosting three days of "UnThanksgiving" events starting Thursday.

  • Each includes a Day of Mourning teach-in, gardening, and an intention-setting ceremony.

The big picture: The Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon put together an extensive list of ways to honor Indigenous people at this time of year — such as adding foods from Indigenous food producers to your Thanksgiving table.

Zoom out: To learn more, Red Bird, a specialist on the Indigenous outreach team at Multnomah County Library in Portland, says picking up a book on Thanksgiving weekend is a "beautiful place" to start.

  • She recommended children's books such as "Keepunumuk", which tells the Thanksgiving story from the perspective of the Wampanoag people, and "We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga", a Cherokee story about their seasonal traditions of expressing gratitude.

Separately, Portland Public Schools offers a learning guide with books, films and other resources.

Background: The modern Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. commemorates the 1621 three-day feast between Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, though historians debate what happened and what was eaten on those days.

Flashback: President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day celebration at the height of the Civil War to "heal the wounds of the nation."

  • Indigenous scholars point out that Lincoln was also directly involved in violence against Native Americans and their removal from their traditional lands.
  • Schools introduced the Thanksgiving story to children without discussing the violence that followed.

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