It was 2002. As a fourth-grader attending public school in Broken Arrow, Okla., I was asked to participate in a Thanksgiving play that coincided with the city’s centennial celebration. As the only Native student at the predominantly White school, I was cast as the lead, unnamed “Indian.” I had construction paper feathers in my braided hair, and my only line consisted of thanking the colonizers for their generosity. In the end, we all sang a song about how great Broken Arrow is, calling it a place “where people know how to work together building pride, living forever side by side.”
In fact, Broken Arrow, today a city of about 100,000, was founded after White colonizers decided to push the Mvskokes out to build the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway through Mvskoke lands — lands they were allotted after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the subsequent Trail of Tears. That’s not quite the “living forever side by side” sentiment we were taught in school.
At 9, I was expected to smile and say thank you to the descendants of those who killed mine — and then sing a happy song about it.
Some things continue to follow you well into adulthood. What has followed me is erasure, the undermining of tribal sovereignty and pervasive ignorance. And Thanksgiving is always a stark reminder of those realities.
Similarly to the play I was forced to perform in, Americans have been told a story that isn’t true about the holiday. From myths about the sharing of a meal to the “totally-not-a-captive” Squanto, our country’s “first Thanksgiving” actually resulted in the genocide and erasure of the Wampanoag. And it set a precedent for what was to come for the Indigenous peoples of this continent.
What most Americans recognize as Thanksgiving was actually created by President Abraham Lincoln. You may know him as “Honest Abe,” but Lincoln was hostile to Natives, ordering the largest mass execution in American history to date — the execution of 38 Lakota men. As tensions rose during the Civil War, Lincoln preached the myth of Pilgrims and Natives coming together to share a meal despite all of their differences. Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863, and the erasure of the truth, our truths, began in full force.
Since then, Native people have been forced to relive their ancestors’ deaths while celebrating over a turkey.
To be fair, many Native people celebrate the holiday to be with their families. Others celebrate the National Day of Mourning: a protest started in 1970 to remember those who have been lost at the hands of the federal government. Others simply enjoy a day off. Native people aren’t a monolith.
As a Seminole and Mvskoke woman living on the Muscogee Creek Reservation, it is really difficult to reconcile the deliberate erasure of Natives with this holiday that is meant to give thanks for what we have. It’s difficult because I know why this holiday came to be, and I can’t fully comprehend what my family has lost since 1863.
This year, there’s an increased importance in examining Native communities during your typical Thanksgiving. Covid-19 has plagued our communities, with Native people and other people of color dying at much higher rates than White Americans. The U.S. government has long underfunded Indian Health Service, and when Native health-care workers asked for personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies to combat this virus, they were sent body bags. Again. What’s more, we are disproportionately at risk of complications because of hundreds of years of systemic health inequities.
If you’ve read this far, you know there’s an issue with how Americans traditionally celebrate Turkey Day. So here are some ideas about what to do instead.
A wonderful first step is educating yourself and your families this year — and that includes standing up to anti-Native racism and erasure as it happens. There are tons of resources written by Native people you can start reading today. And don’t stop at learning about the true history of Thanksgiving. One study found that in U.S. history textbooks, 87 percent of references to Natives are in a pre-1900s context, and only one state — Washington — uses the word “genocide” to teach Native peoples’ history. Right now, we are fighting to combat environmental injustice, threats to our sovereignty, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and so many more issues. Education is the first step to ending this vicious cycle of erasure and genocide.
Whose lands do you occupy? You can visit this website or text 907-312-5085 with your city and state to find out. Once you do, learn about them. Figure out how you can support them. Give your land back, donate to their education funds, purchase their art and start conversations with local leaders. Finally, have you ever claimed to have some distant Native grandmother without any tribal, cultural or community connections? Blood myths and well-named “pretendians” pose a massive threat to our tribal sovereignty. These claims to Indigeneity without actual connection are harmful.
There are scores of wonderful Native-led foundations and organizations that you can donate funds to over the Thanksgiving break, including IllumiNative, Indian Country Media Network and First Peoples Fund. Another way you can support Native people is by donating directly to individuals and families. Checking out GoFundMe fundraisers, gifting a Native person who educated you on the Internet, checking #SettlerSaturday on Twitter and purchasing Native art and jewelry are really easy ways to support Natives in need right now. And a little goes a long way.
This year, I will be thankful if any reader takes the first step toward reconciliation.
Tara Moses (she/her) is a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Mvskoke, an award-winning playwright, director, producing artistic director of telatúlsa, and co-founder of Groundwater Arts.