This Thanksgiving, as in the past, families will come together to celebrate. They’ll share reasons why they are thankful — good health, new friends, and appreciation of a wonderful family. Maybe even a new job. Conversations may revolve around the first Thanksgiving, as adults share their version of history — that the pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a bountiful harvest.
I’m sure we all remember being children in school and creating Indian “drums” by stretching rubber over a coffee can, making a feather headdress, and learning to sit “Indian style” as part of learning about Native Americans during each November.
As we learned in school, Squanto, a Native American, helped the pilgrims plant crops and nurture them during the growing season before helping them harvest the crops. As a thank you, the pilgrims invited the local tribe to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with them.
It wasn’t quite like that, according to an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. While there was a dinner, it was part of creating an alliance between the Wampanoag and the Europeans. Native Americans had been decimated by disease and war, so tribal leader Ousamequin saw the alliance as an opportunity to help his people. Later, the relationship between the Wampanoag and Europeans soured.
Thanksgiving, a true European-American holiday that was officially sanctioned in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, isn’t observed by most Native Americans in the same light as it by other Americans. Native American history in the United States isn’t positive. Thus, some Native Americans don’t look at the holiday with the same adulation as others.
Native American History With The Government
In order to understand Native Americans’ views, we need to take a glimpse into the historical relationship between the United States and Native Americans. While there are several examples of wrongs committed by the American government toward Native Americans, such as the Trail of Tears and the gold rush in the Black Hills, major issues included reservation life following the mid-1800s’ wars, when tribal members needed written permission from a federal Indian agent to leave a reservation. Imagine having to get the mayor’s approval to leave your hometown to go shopping elsewhere.
Children were then forced off many reservations and sent to residential schools, where their hair was cut, and they were forced to wear uniforms and speak English. Children were beaten for speaking their native language. Nebraska is home to the Genoa Indian School, where children from 20 tribes in 10 states were forced from their homes and sent to the rural town. Here, they learned trades such as tailoring, housekeeping, and blacksmithing.
Children often cried themselves to sleep. Some ran away, never to be heard from again, as many didn’t find their way home. Those who stayed developed a unique sense of humor — Indian humor — that finds a way to take a serious situation and laugh about it. Students often carved their initials in the brick walls, and their marks can still be seen today. The Nebraska school, one of four residential schools in the country located off a reservation, was open for 50 years before closing in the midst of the Great Depression.
Other major issues include a policy of termination — simply telling tribes they no longer exist. This has been an ongoing effort, as the federal government recently tried to terminate the Wampanoag, the very tribe that originally helped the pilgrims.
Then, Relocation forced people off reservations and into urban environments without any contacts or assistance. Eventually, in the 1970s, the Self-Determination Act gave tribes their sovereignty and more control over their future.
Native American Celebration
So, hopefully, you can understand why Native Americans as a whole don’t openly embrace Thanksgiving. The trauma of Native Americans’ past carries throughout generations. That said, do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? As a group, I’d say we don’t, but we use the time to get together with family and enjoy a bounty of food, combining the European-American menu of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pie.
But, Native families add a mix of tribal traditions to their meals. It’s common to find a heaping plate of fry bread. It seems no Native American get-together can occur without fry bread. I remember my grandmother making it on her wood-burning stove on the Santee Dakota reservation in northeast Nebraska. While our dinners didn’t always have fry bread, many people did. My mom was an Irish lass from Arkansas. So, most of our Thanksgiving dinners consisted of the traditional American fare. But she always made a ham. Someone pointed out to me once that this wasn’t the Midwestern norm. I didn’t know any better, as it was just something we had. I always look forward to having a slice of ham or two next to my turkey.
Families tend to combine a taste of Native life with the American dishes. You’ll find dishes such as wild rice casserole. A niece who lives in Canada adds moose side dishes to her dinner.
Another friend, who lives in Wisconsin, said her family always has a plate of fry bread, which is usually sitting next to a crock of sauerkraut, which comes from her European side of the family.
Other foods you may find on the table at a Native American Thanksgiving get-together include corn soup and fried corn.
Powwows Are True Thanksgiving
Rather than celebrate the American version of Thanksgiving, Native Americans use powwows to celebrate the past, culture, tradition, and family. This is the true Native American Thanksgiving. Powwows offer an opportunity for families to spend time together, either dancing or watching the dances. Concession stands popular at powwows always serve Indian tacos (fry bread topped with taco ingredients), roasted corn cobs, and giant turkey legs.
Performing traditional dances that often tell stories are the stars of powwows. From jingle dances to shawl dances and traditional grass dances, powwows offer a variety of performances. Hoop dances and fancy dances are among the more creative feats.
Drum groups are the heartbeat of a powwow. Often consisting of four or five people, drum groups are located just outside the circle. While its meaning differs between tribes, it’s generally accepted that the Circle means a never-ending world, where time is fluid and everyone is treated equally. The Circle should never be broken.
Powwows are a community event. People travel from all over the country to different reservations or venues to dance, sell handmade crafts and jewelry, and enjoy the camaraderie of friends and family. I enjoy the time I can spend with my siblings, nieces, and nephews. When my daughters lived in Nebraska, they attended with us. It’s a sense of pride and family to share this event with family. I strongly encourage everyone to attend a powwow but know the etiquette before attending one. I tend to visit at least three or four powwows a year.
When we attend our tribe’s powwow, my family usually goes out for dinner afterward. My brothers, their families, including daughters and nieces, spend time together. We eat, drink, joke, and laugh. It’s always one of my favorite times we spend together. We have a favorite restaurant in the small town of Niobrara, about 10 miles from Santee. Sportsmen’s Bar is a saloon and restaurant. It serves some of the best steaks and prime rib — and my personal favorite — in Nebraska.
Thanksgiving Can Be Anytime
Thanksgiving can be anything and anytime for people. This may be more of a Native American concept, as traditionally, we look at time as fluid. But, spending time together is the main reason for Thanksgiving, right? So, whether it’s a family spending time around a large table with a giant turkey waiting to be sliced by Grandpa or Dad, or it’s a potluck at Grandma’s with ham, turkey, fry bread, and moose jerky, getting together with our loved ones should be the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
I’ve been married twice, both times to Caucasian women. My first wife’s family celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday the traditional way for them, with people giving thanks and a smorgasbord of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn casserole, desserts, and more. My second wife’s family celebrates with traditional fare, but it always has the feel of a get together more than a formal celebration of the holiday.
So, this year, as you head off through the woods to Grandmother’s house or hop on the plane for a transcontinental holiday, please have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving. As for Native Americans, we’ll spend the day doing it our way, with a little fry bread, wild rice, turkey, and maybe a bowl of corn soup. Oh, and is nothing more American — Native or European — than watching football?