This week, as we gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, it is time to open a conversation, one that acknowledges more truthfully the injustices, past and present, in the Thanksgiving stories we tell.
In the centuries that have passed since the Pilgrims first dined with the Wampanoag at Plymouth, the gulf separating Native and non-Native Americans has become huge, thanks to war, disease, genocide and countless harmful policies inflicted on Natives.
Today, Native people account for roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population. Roughly 22 percent live on reservations or related regions. New York City is the urban area with the most Native Americans, but at 111,749 residents, Natives make up less than 2 percent of the country’s largest city.
Outside of some sparsely populated Western states, most Natives and non-Natives have few, if any, opportunities to interact. Absent contact with actual Natives, most Americans are left with negative images that are mired in myths from the past, such as feathered headdresses and tomahawks, and tainted with more recent stereotypes, such as casinos and alcoholism. The “Indian” mascots displayed so proudly by sports teams such as the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks perpetuate caricatures that are inaccurate and hurtful.
Years ago, when my children were young, this really hit home for me. I had been welcomed warmly by a handful of Native Americans on the Menominee reservation, during the early stages of what has become a decades-long collaboration involving Northwestern University, where I am a professor, and Native communities. Together, we have been working to understand how children’s understanding of the natural world unfolds across development and across cultures.
When I returned home from that first meeting, as I began to tell my children about my day, the youngest interrupted to ask, “Mommy! Did they have feathers?” This stopped me in my tracks. As she tried to envision my story, this was the clearest image of an Indian that came to her mind.
More recently, at a community meeting at the American Indian Center in Chicago, the Chicago Blackhawks, who had just won hockey’s Stanley Cup, were a topic of discussion. After looking at their mascot, a young Native child leaned over to her mother and asked, “Why don’t I look like an Indian?”
This Thanksgiving, non-Native Americans can begin to change these attitudes. For starters, we can make a firm commitment to learn about Native American history and indigenous culture, past and present. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian offers an inspiring entry point, providing a wealth of material designed for children and adults on its website.
We can teach our children about Native Americans’ contributions to our nation. For example, they serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. They have served in every U.S. war for over 200 years. Among the best-known examples are the Native American Code Talkers, who served in World War I and II, employing indigenous languages to relay messages without being understood by enemy forces.
We can commit to acknowledging the tragic outcome of that fateful meeting in Plymouth. In fact, some Natives observe Nov. 28 as a National Day of Mourning. Mahtowin Munro of the Lakota tribe, a co-leader of United American Indians of New England, said of the day, “It’s really a day for non-Native people to listen. Every other day of the year, in this society we’re not even a presence. We’re relegated to being an asterisk or not even counted or being a joke, like a sports team mascot.”
We should listen.
We can also create a Black Friday tradition in which we buy or share books that increase our understanding, such as “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America” by Thomas King and “Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks. The website Oyate.org has many other examples of books written and illustrated by Native authors for adults and children of all ages.
While we cannot undo the past, we can at least offer more recognition of the harm done. For example, the past few years have seen more efforts to ban racist sports mascots. And this year at least nine major cities voted to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day.
Let’s continue this trend on Thanksgiving by opening a conversation that links us more truthfully to our past and brings us clearer insight into the present.