What Thanksgiving Means to Me

By Terra Trevor

Forty-one years ago my Native community began a November “Harvest Dinner” thanks-giving tradition. It’s an intertribal time honoring our traditions with traditional foods, song, dance, prayer, storytelling, conversation and laughter. Initially these gatherings began as a way to include Native students at the nearby university who did not travel home to their families on reservations or distant cities and were left alone on campus during the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Like many Native American people we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, as it has been coined in America. Instead we honor “American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month” as our celebration of life past, present and future.

I find it ironic and sad that Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage month have been braided together in the month of November. America is slow to learn from its mistakes. Thanksgiving—as it is recognized in America, 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.

My family is mixed race and multi ethnic. I’m of Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca and German descent, and my immediate family was formed through marriage, adoption, kinship care, love and community. We have loved ones who survived Nazi Germany, and aunties and uncles who lived under the Japanese occupation in Korea through the end of World War II. They left Korea to immigrate to America. Others in my blended family emigrated from Balikpapan. My loved ones tell me when they came to the United States everything was new—the foods, the smells, the language and the people. They felt alone and out of place while learning to become fluent in English in those first early years. But most of all they were thankful for the privilege of gaining American citizenship. A sense of belonging began to take hold. They were encouraged to assimilate, but they were not forced to let go of their traditions, language and cultural heritage. From that deep place of thankfulness, a respect for the holiday known as Thanksgiving was born.

This is in great contrast to my American Indian ancestry, identity, mindset and Native community belonging. Thanksgiving and the myths associated with it have done damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Americans by perpetuating cultural misappropriation and stereotyping that leave harmful images and lasting negative impressions in Native American and non-Native minds.

My immigrant family members and intimates know all too well the effects of assimilation. It gave way for thoughtful examination of cultural differences with emphasis on renewal and survival. Never having been washed in the American tradition of the First Thanksgiving falsehoods, there is no standard set linking it to a day in 1621. No myths carried about roasted meats and Indians sharing a table with Plymouth settlers.

I’m well into grandmotherhood now, doing my best to learn what I need in order to grow right as an elder and to do my part to make better for the next seven generations. I tell stories to the children and parents in my community. They ask me many questions about Native Americans and Thanksgiving. I tell them about the Wampanoag people. About this tribe of Southern Massachusetts and how their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims in New England, and how they lived to regret it, and that now the tribe is growing strong again. I tell them Native people have a history largely untold and that gathering to give thanks for the harvest did not originate in America with the Pilgrims, it was always our way. I read books to the kids written by Native American authors who are working to make sure that Native lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity.

And so the histories of Native People are painful to hear, still they need to be told and retold and never forgotten by generations of Americans.

But I tell this this story today for ALL people in America, with the hope that through truthful knowledge of the past we will not allow another group of people in America to have their life ways taken from them, to have their ethnicities and cultures erased, to be exterminated and reach near total elimination, even again. 

  • Journal and pen in my hand, I sit staring at the leaves on the trees tossing in the wind. Above my head hangs a thousand paper cranes; good luck cranes. A...
  • Terra Trevor is an essayist, memoirist and nonfiction writer of a diverse body of work. She values the collective experience and collaborates with other w...

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