Native American Heritage Month, an opportunity for education
By Taylor Hasson
This article was originally published in November 2022
For nearly 90% of American households, November means celebrating Thanksgiving with a harvest feast. It’s typically the busiest time of year for grocery stores and a time to focus on family and gratitude.
In recent years, though, the month has come to mean more.
November is Native American Heritage Month, a designation created in 1990 through a joint resolution of Congress and President George H.W. Bush.
The National Congress of American Indians calls the month “a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people.” It’s also “an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges,” the organization says.
The need is year-round, of course, and PCC has found both expected and unexpected ways to learn more, from a decision last year to stop selling items that were judged as infringing on Indigenous cultures to our work with the Tulalip Bay Chinook fishery, from commissioning educational resources to directing grant funds.
As a grocery store, though, one of our biggest opportunities for education is tied to the Thanksgiving holiday that we celebrate with our communities, a holiday with origins that are far more complex than generations of schoolchildren have been taught. As the New York Times put it in 2020, it is now widely accepted that the traditional tale is not accurate.
In the traditional narrative, the feast sprang from a friendly collaboration between pilgrim settlers and non-descript Indigenous people, where “local Native Americans welcomed the courageous, pioneering pilgrims to a celebratory feast,” as a 2019 article in Smithsonian magazine said.
The true story, as many historians and educators now realize, is complicated, violent and even tragic. Since 1970, in fact, Indigenous people have gathered near Plymouth Rock, the memorial marking the settlers’ arrival, on the fourth Thursday of November for a National Day of Mourning to mark the event.
Dr. David J. Silverman, professor of Native American, Colonial American, and American racial history at George Washington University, has called for a “thoughtful reconsideration of the way the history of Thanksgiving is told.”
In his 2019 book, “This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” Silverman outlines how the interplay between the Wampanoag people and European-American colonizers in the early 1600s made for a complicated alliance— and a powerful story of resilience and persistence of the Wampanoag people.
As Silverman describes the history, the Wampanoag Tribe allied temporarily with colonists after attacks by an adversarial tribe, the Narragansetts. The Wampanoag people became vulnerable to the attacks after becoming destabilized by two epidemics brought by colonizers — slave raids and devastating, new-to-them diseases. The temporary alliance later deteriorated into King Philip’s War, “one of the most horrific Colonial Indian wars on record,” Silverman wrote, yet the Wampanoag people have survived and adapted over the centuries.
That story is not the stuff of pageants, Silverman noted.
In a Thanksgiving episode of the podcast Preservation Maryland, he took a broader look at why the myth of Thanksgiving has persisted for centuries: In part, he said, “to acknowledge the depth and richness of that history would require paying greater heed to Native American people and their claims to sovereignty and resource rights—and colonialism is all about dismissing those rights.”
The work of Andrew K. Frank, a professor at Florida State University, adds additional context. Frank has said that many regional harvest celebrations emerged in the 17th century, linked to different origin stories of Colonial and Native fellowship. He noted in a university article that President Abraham Lincoln codified the national celebration of Thanksgiving in 1863 as a push for unification in the United States after the Civil War, and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined it as a national holiday in 1941 in a piece of “canny” statesmanship. “Scholars argue that to be a nation, citizens have to imagine themselves as being part of one big community that shares a collective past, true or otherwise. Thanksgiving helps to serve that function,” he told the paper.
A step forward, perhaps, is to learn more about the truth of that past, and to work toward a more just future. We’ve listed some resources below and welcome your additions to share in our Sound Consumer letters page at email@example.com.
Taylor Hasson, PCC’s manager of community and purpose, serves on the co-op’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) committee.
Learn more about the Wampanoag people and the true history of Thanksgiving through the 2019 book “This Land is Their Land: the Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving” by David J. Silverman.
For more on the National Day of Mourning see www.uaine.org.
Read about The Sioux Chef, committed to revitalizing Native American cuisine, at sioux-chef.com.
Learn more about the United States’ history from a non-colonial perspective by reading the 2014 book “Indigenous People’s History of the United States” by Roxanne Ortiz-Dunbar.
Read tips from a college professor on “decolonizing your Thanksgiving” at this link.
For an issue of particular relevance in the Northwest, see an overview of the complex issue of federal recognition for the Duwamish Tribe, the “host tribe of Seattle,” in The Seattle Times.
Learn more directly from the Duwamish Tribe about efforts towards obtaining federal recognition, acknowledgement, and benefits and ways to act in solidarity at the Tribe’s website.
Find out more here about the Real Rent Duwamish campaign and sign up to be a Real Renter online.
Learn about and donate to Seattle Indian Health Board’s culturally relevant health clinic at this site.
Learn about and support a Native-led housing and human services organization at the Chief Seattle Club website.
Learn here about United Indians of All Tribes’ programs and how to contribute to Build the Canoe Center.
See recent Seattle Times articles reassessing how it covered Native issues such as the 1970 protest that led to the founding of United Indians of All Tribes at this link.
Learn about Native Territory at Native-Land.ca.
Learn which Indigenous lands you are living on by texting your zip code to (907) 312-5085. A bot based on data from Native-Land.ca will respond with the names of the Native lands that correspond to that region.
Indigenous holiday vendors
Interested in supporting local Indigenous vendors this holiday season? Online shops include:
Chief Seattle Club’s Native Works store.
Duwamish Tribe’s Longhouse Store.