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A Native American Mother’'s Perspective on Thanksgiving

Photo from Psycho-Pics via Flickr Creative Commons 


Wind, smelling of wood smoke rattles the yellow leaves off the peach tree. I adjust my glasses, button my coat. My son bounds from his classroom to greet me. Eyes filled with brown warmth, he peeks out from under a cap of shiny dark hair; it’s the kind of black that shines red in sunlight. 


“Mom, something about this isn’t right.” He is holding a construction paper headdress fashioned with hot pink and purple feathers. I nod, and run my hand through his hair, pushing the bangs off his forehead. Out of the corner of my eye I see children clutching construction paper pilgrim hats.


With his eyebrows curved in question marks my sons asks, “Have you ever seen an Eagle with pink and purple feathers?” And then we both giggle at the absurdity. It’s both funny, and not funny. My son understands the seriousness of regalia, but at age seven it’s not his job to carry the weight. As his mother that responsibility belongs to me.


November, the season of damp leaves, slanted sunlight and Thanksgiving is braided with Native American Heritage month. What started at the turn of the century to recognize The First Americans simmered on the back burner until 1990, when President George H. Bush approved a joint resolution designing November as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations have been issued each year since 1994. But thus far, the majority of those I meet within mainstream American continue to be unaware there is something to acknowledge other than the story of “The First Thanksgiving.” I say this not only in sorrow, but in disbelief.

Why do so many parents, families and teachers continue to dedicate the month of November with a focus on perpetuating this myth year after year after year?


Native people are connected to history, to family, to land, culture and community. We are still alive. We are still here; we have not disappeared into the past, like the pilgrims did. All of the Elders I know tell me Native People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. After the corn was all dried, pumpkins sliced and the wild plums brought in it was a time for “giving thanks.” When the food was together for the hard winter months and when the work was all done, they gathered.


Yet after the “Thanksgiving” holiday was coined and continues to be celebrated based on a story that does not include factual Native American history, “Thanksgiving” has become a time of mourning for many Native People. It serves as a period of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many Native people from disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation. As celebrated in America “Thanksgiving” is a reminder of 500 years of betrayal.


I’m within the assemblage of Native American’s whose family and Native friends celebrates Thanksgiving. But our focus is not on pilgrims. We don’t turn their lives topsy-turvy by making lengthy lists of things needing to be done for what has come to be known as Turkey Day. We aren’t in the throng of those who go commercial in the planning and then grumble about the fanfare involved. Our celebration is deep-rooted in the simple tradition of honoring, remembering our ancestors, our history, with a focus on celebrating the harvest. We feast and pray for the healing to begin. Our thoughts turn to the Wampanoag people.


Each year when the platters of cracked corn, green-chile turkey soup and the pies are brought out, I remember my grandmother’s words. “Child,” she said, “We’re Indians, our culture has been scattered into odds and bits, yet Indian People are determined to keep our life ways alive.”


Since no one knows when the “first” thanksgiving occurred, if it were up to me, I’d dedicate the entire month of November focusing on National Native American Heritage, to teach the rich histories of Native Peoples, and I’d let the pilgrims have a day all of their own, in December.



AppleMarkTerra Trevor, of Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca ancestry, frequently writes on the topics of motherhood, culture, ethnicity, and her identity as a mixed blood. She is a contributing author of ten books, including Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices On Child Custody and Education (The University of Arizona Press) and The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal (The University of Oklahoma.) With her husband she raised three children. Her son was adopted as a baby with special medical needs, and her oldest daughter was adopted at age ten. Terra’s first book, Pushing up the Sky: A Mother’s Story, published in 2006, is widely anthologized. Read an excerpt.




Terra’s  Websites


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Comments (5)

Thank you for this. I sincerely appreciate seeing that Mothering.com cares enough to present a perspective such as yours.
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Thank you for this article, I was disheartened when my twins' preschool teacher told the mythical story of thanksgiving. I don't plan to sugarcoat this for my girls who are very young still. Can you recommend any children's books about the real story of thanksgiving? Does such a thing exist?
Dear Author, I'm sorry but a great mother you may very well be, a great teacher, and a great person even - but this article is just ignorant and offensive.  First of all, how dare you assume how other Americans celebrate their Thanksgiving.  What makes you think ours is any different than yours?  What gives you the right to assume that WE are not at home celebrating OUR own ancestors, ACKNOWLEDGING the Native peoples who were here before us, recognizing the commercialism of the holidays, and having simple meals with loved ones and gratitude, without grumble of any kind?  From one minority woman to another, I suggest the next time you write for an audience, you don't assume a place of superiority while condescending to those of us who are in fact aware of this month's designation (NAHM), or even those who aren't based on one of thousands of 'declarations' made by political figures over the years.  For someone who claims to be connected to culture and community, you might want to make MANY less assumptions about others (and try more proofreading of your grammatical errors) next time.
First, thank you to Mothering.com for inviting me to write on this delicate topic.
Thank you to readers. It’s a privilege to have readers, thank you for being one.
In response to the request to recommend children's books about the real story of thanksgiving, I cannot endorse any that are appropriate for children. But I do have a favorite resource offering critical perspectives of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.
American Indian's In Children's Literature By Debbie Reese
Starting a library collection of books about American Indians?
Top Board Books for Babes
Top Ten Books for Elem School
Top Ten Books for Middle School
Top Ten Books for High School
My article Braiding Native American Heritage Month with Thanksgiving was first published here in 2011. The link has been widely distributed in a number of venues and has received a variety of intelligent comments and questions. It has also generated discussions from teachers and parents seeking accurate resources to teach the histories of Native peoples and to bring a balance with Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage month braided together within the month of November.
I apologize for grammatical errors. It is a weakness I’m working to strengthen. The editors at Mothering work long hours with large volumes of submissions and occasionally an error slips past. Most importantly I feel they do a terrific job of bringing forth excellent content.
Also, if I were writing this piece today I would take great care to make my standpoint without offending anyone. Yet I can only walk forward and be mindful to walk gently. Criticism is never easy to shake off. Yet I am thankful for criticism. It has taught me to take care to be respectful and kind when I need to write a comment disagreeing with an article or the point of view the writer shares.
In an odd turnaround I’m even beginning to like readers who challenge my point of view and ability to write. They keep me from staying stuck within my comfort zone. Readers and writers need each other to grow, laugh, cope, deal, celebrate and sometimes to disagree.
Mothering › Family Fun Articles › A Native American Mother’'s Perspective on Thanksgiving