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Modern Thanksgiving Day traditions offer unique perspectives on the holiday's origins

4 days 2 hours 38 minutes ago Thursday, November 25 2021 Nov 25, 2021 November 25, 2021 3:23 PM November 25, 2021 in News
Source: USA Today
Indigenous children in South Dakota learn to make "wasna," which is a traditional food of Plains Native Americans.

On the fourth Thursday of every November, many families across the U.S. enjoy gathering for a large meal and collaboratively reflecting on the aspects of life they're most grateful for.

This holiday, typically referred to as Thanksgiving, is often viewed as a reflection of and tribute to a three-day harvest feast of 1621 believed to be shared between a tribe of native peoples called the Wampanoag and a group of new-comers to their land, the pilgrims.

But, according to USA Today, many modern-day descendants of the Wampanoag and other native tribes approach this time of year with a gravity that other cultures may struggle to understand.

In a recent article that included interviews with multiple Indigenous people, USA Today pointed out that for many of those interviewed it simply isn't possible to only celebrate peace and shared prosperity between Native Americans and Pilgrims during Thanksgiving.

Instead, this time of year represents the dark shadow of genocide and its damaging affect on a resilient group of people.

In an interview with Time magazine, a Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe explained why such feelings occur during this national holiday. 

In his explanation, Chairman Brian Weeden said his outlook is tied to the initial harvest meal his ancestors shared with the pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony.

Some native peoples point out that this feast may not have been a happy time for the Wampanoag. They were still trying to recover from a deadly epidemic that may have been triggered by the arrival of newcomers to their land. The effects of the disease would continue to haunt their tribe for the next 30 years. 

This was coupled with the events that would follow the feast, which included acts of genocide against native peoples and outright theft of their land.

With this in mind, Weeden said, "I personally think that it’s (Thanksgiving) just another reminder of all the horrible things that this nation has done to not only us, but all native people. For this nation to right a lot of their wrongs, they’re gonna have to own up to their racism, which they don’t want to do.”

Journalist, Matt Juul also referred to a different perspective on the origins of Thanksgiving in a 2014 article, in which Juul states,"As a holiday, Thanksgiving began in 1637 when it was proclaimed by governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the safe return of the men who had gone to fight against the Pequot in Mystic, Connecticut." 
    Juul continued, "The fighting led to the enslavement and massacre of over 700 men, women and children from the New England-based tribe, a bloody precursor to what would be centuries of strife for Native peoples in the US."

    With the weight of this history on their shoulders, how do some Indigenous people spend Thanksgiving?

    The answer to that question is as varied as humans are in their individual outlooks. But, among the individualized reactions to this national holiday, a common thread appears among the response of many Indigenous peoples.   

    Some use the day to commemorate a National Day of Mourning, which was established in 1970.

    Those who choose to observe this event use the fourth Thursday of November to remember the suffering inflicted in the 1620s and to draw attention to the challenges Indigenous people continue to face in the form of, on top of so much else, violence against women and girls.

    Other Indigenous people choose to gather with their families and share a meal, exchanging prayers and stories from the rich oral history of Native Americans.

    Still others fast for the entire day.

    USA Today interviewed tribal citizen Julie Garreau of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota about her observation of the National Day of Mourning.

    Garreau, who runs the Cheyenne River Youth Project, is this year, using the day to organize an event on Native American Heritage Day called, "Thanks for Kids," which celebrates Native children.

    During "Thanks for Kids," youths on the Cheyenne River reservation will enjoy home-cooked tacos and participate in fun activities centered around Native American traditions.

    For example, during previous events Garreau cooked Native dishes like buffalo roast and pumpkin soup and worked with children in the Cheyenne River Youth Project to make wasna, a traditional food of the Plains Indians made from a mixture of dried meat (typically buffalo), dried berries (typically chokecherries) and fat (typically kidney fat or bone marrow) that's pounded together with a mortar and pestle.

    >Click here for more on traditional Native American foods<

    These activities are designed to shed light on the beauty of Indigenous cultures and what they have to offer to their fellow neighbors across the U.S.

    Garreau told reporters she hopes Americans of all backgrounds will be able to learn the real history of Thanksgiving and reflect on what it means to the descendants of the native peoples who were involved.

    In a similar vein, Chairman Weeden of the Wampanoag expressed a desire for justice, saying, "Everyone wants to talk about Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving. And here, the tribe that started it all is still waiting for our little bit of justice that is owed to us. The Native Americans who welcomed everybody lost all of their land. Today, we only own half of 1% of our ancestral territory."

    Weeden concluded, "I think that just speaks volumes. Four hundred years later, I tell everyone we don’t have much to be thankful for."

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