These Native Americans focus on family amid the dark history of Thanksgiving

A film slide from the 1621 painting The First Thanksgiving by JLG Ferris shows locals and pilgrims gathering for a meal together.  (Washington Post Illustration; The Foundation Press, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio./Library of Congress)
A film slide from the 1621 painting The First Thanksgiving by JLG Ferris shows locals and pilgrims gathering for a meal together. (Washington Post Illustration; The Foundation Press, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio./Library of Congress)

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For centuries, Thanksgiving has been an opportunity for friends and family to gather with peace and gratitude in their hearts. But for Native Americans, celebrating Fall Break isn’t that easy.

The short and sweet tale, told in schools and depicting the first Thanksgiving as a harmonious harvest festival between Native Americans and pilgrims, “was a very romanticized, whitewashed education about indigenous peoples,” said Jordan Daniel, who belongs to the Lower Brule Sioux tribe.

In fact, 1621 wasn’t the first Thanksgiving celebration between the English and the Wampanoag, said David Silverman, a George Washington University professor who specializes in Native American history. The Wampanoags attempted to ally themselves with the English for trade and maintain political independence from another native group after an epidemic reduced their numbers.

“Tensions built up for years as the English population grew and began to dispossess, subdue and evangelize Aboriginal people,” Silverman said. Finally, war broke out around 1675, and after the English won, they enslaved about 2,000 Indian prisoners of war, he added.

In 1970, the United American Indians of New England began observing Thanksgiving Day as a national day of mourning to honor their ancestors who experienced cultural genocide at the hands of European colonists.

Native Americans as a whole say they are still fighting for what is rightfully theirs. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is still not in control of all of their ancestral lands. The Supreme Court has reviewed the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which Congress passed in 1978 to remedy the practice of removing Native children from their homes and sending them to non-Native boarding schools and families.

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Pete Coser, Jr. is an educator and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation Also referred to recent news that Harvard University’s Peabody Museum has apologized for its collection of hair samples from 700 Native American children and promised to return them to families and tribal communities. “It shows a lot of different dynamics related to this holiday and this particular year,” he said.

Despite the painful repetition of Thanksgiving, tribal peoples also see themselves as resilient. The fourth Thursday of November is an opportunity for them to celebrate their roots and smash stereotypes, Coser says.

Pete Coser, Jr., who lives in Oklahoma, says Thanksgiving feels like something out of a real Hallmark movie for him.

As Coser’s family prepares their feast for the day, Coser’s aunts, sisters, and mother joke about who cooks the best dishes. Coser loves his oldest sister’s gooey pumpkin pie. And when the meal is ready, several generations gather around the table to enjoy turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole and potato salad. They end the day playing games like Uno, Clue, and if it’s just the grown-ups, Cards Against Humanity.

Though Thanksgiving dates back to a turbulent Native American history, Coser doesn’t let tragedy define his Muscogee Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw lineages, or the Mashpee Wampanoag ancestry that his three sons and daughter also come from their mother’s side to have.

His surname comes from the Coosa region, which was one of the largest chiefdoms in the Southeast and stretched between present-day Georgia and Alabama. And while the Spaniards who colonized the area viewed the tribal leaders, called Mekko, as chiefs, they were actually kings, Coser said.

“What I say to my kids is, ‘You’re from royalty. They come from powerful people,” he said. “They have a place on this earth to point to and say, ‘That’s where I originally came from.'”

Coser’s family prides itself on being Native Americans, not just on Thanksgiving, but throughout their everyday lives. They embrace being indigenous while also being lacrosse players, musicians, educators, historians, psychologists and accountants.

“We’re not people of the past,” Coser said.

Although Northern Virginia mom Jordan Daniel loved how Thanksgiving brought her family together, she doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving like she used to.

Instead, she watches Truthsgiving at a 4-mile running event hosted by Rising Hearts, the grassroots organization she founded. Each year Daniel uses the event as an opportunity for local and non-indigenous people to raise awareness and money for indigenous social issues.

Daniel first learned the true story of Thanksgiving from a Do Something article, which motivated her to place more importance on “honoring the past, celebrating the present, and building a future” for indigenous people like her.

She still meets with her family that day, but plans to prepare indigenous cuisine beyond the Indian tacos, fried bread, and wojapi her family has eaten in years past. She wants to incorporate foods known in local culture as the three sisters: beans, corn and squash.

“At its core, it’s just about supporting and amplifying the voices of indigenous people in our communities and … having an open heart and mind,” she said. “It challenges what you thought growing up, but I think we do a lot of the work of unlearning and relearning together as a community.”

Josh Arce, a Dallas-based member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, has always spent his Thanksgiving eating and fellowshipping with multiple generations of people he calls family, even if they’re not related by blood: cousins, aunts, uncles, and grannies.

“It may not be your grandma, but they are an adopted grandma,” he said. “There’s this pluralism of families that’s natural in Aboriginal cultures.”

Back when Arce lived in Lawrence, Kan., that family included Native students who couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving. Arce plays dominoes and eats traditional dishes such as wild rice casserole, which is usually made with sausage or ground turkey and cream of mushroom soup, or dishes made with squash or squash.

“We have this historical trauma, we have intergenerational trauma,” he said. But when Native Americans have fun on Thanksgiving, “they create good memories to replace those negative, traumatic memories.

Verna Volker, who lives in Minneapolis, lives far from her extended family in New Mexico, home of the Navajo Nation. Thanksgiving has often given Volker a reason to fly over and reconnect with them.

Last year, Thanksgiving was particularly sentimental for Volker because her mother died a few days before the holiday. Family members, even more so than on a typical Thanksgiving, flew in from across the country for their mother’s funeral. The time together underscored once again how important family time was to Volker. Ever since Volker was a child, her family has weathered the storms of trauma and grief as a group.

“Even in our grief we were together and laughed,” said Volker.

Over the years, her family has feasted on a mixed menu of popular Thanksgiving dishes and those specific to Navajo culture, like mutton stew and hominy stew.

Whether it’s Thanksgiving or everyday life, she loves to see Native peoples in a positive light and works to debunk stereotypes that portray Native people as drunk, overly sexual, or rich in casino money.

“There’s so much negativity among our people,” she said. “I want to change that narrative.”

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