Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, American families across
the U.S. gather at the dinner table to feast on turkey and give thanks for their blessings.
But with a dark history behind the traditional Thanksgiving holiday, many New Mexican residents find the celebrations controversial.
Most Americans have been taught about the context of the “first Thanksgiving,” recalling English colonists suffering during one of their first winters in a new land. The colonists, who had nowhere else to turn, sought assistance from the Wampanoag people who lived in the area. The Wampanoag shared their knowledge of the land, which resulted in the colonists having a successful harvest that they decided to celebrate with a shared feast. Both cultures saw an opportunity in helping the other and came to an agreement in which both groups would provide protection in exchange for an array of skills and trades.
While much of that tale is true, it’s not the entire story.
Over time, the mutual relationship between the Wampanoag and colonists became one-sided. When the colonists’ population grew after the Natives’ skills had been adopted, the colonists began to assert control over the Wampanoag. Eventually, the ties between the cultures were severed. The hostile relationship between the Native people and colonists, including wars and raids, eventually lead to systemic racism that Indigenous people still experience today.
Efforts to assimilate Native people into white culture involved demeaning tactics, and despite the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, their right to vote was not secured until the 1960s. In addition, Native people have, for generations, been stripped of equal access to wealth, education and health care.
While it’s true Americans have become much more accepting and welcoming of people of all backgrounds, the consequences of colonization — and yes, that includes Thanksgiving — continue to carry weight and cause ongoing issues of discrimination. According to a survey conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2017, “more than one-third of Native Americans report slurs, violence, harassment, and being discriminated against in the workplace.”
In addition to these forms of explicit abuse, many Native people struggle to reclaim cultural identity after generations of being subjected to forceful “whitewashing.” Indigenous people were put into boarding schools that prohibited the use of Native language and traditions, for example.
“A lot of Native cultures [were] lost due to things like colonization, but even in that, a lot has been taken away because of the lack of education, especially from schools,” said Nolan Hall, a sophomore at the Santa Fe Indian School and a member of the Navajo Nation.
Many other Santa Fe-area students agree, noting they feel schools often fail to teach the reality of Thanksgiving some 400 years later.
“The only thing I remember when being taught about Thanksgiving was when the teachers had half of our class dress up as Indians and the other half as pilgrims,” said Skye Johnson (Seminole Muscogee Creek), a junior at the Academy for Technology and the Classics. “It was very culturally inappropriate, I feel, and quite ineffective in historical accuracy.”
Johnson said she believes that appropriation
is one of many flaws of modern-day Thanksgiving. She speaks about how corporations capitalize on the sale of feather headdresses and Indian-style merchandise for the use of Native inclusion. She warns that inaccurate representation of the culture could actually lead to greater discrimination.
“False representations leave an inaccurate image for those who are uninformed, which can sometimes scare or turn off those who hear it,” she said.
For these reasons, many Native people spend Thanksgiving in a state of mourning and remembrance.
“My family acknowledges that it is a celebratory day for many people but does not take part because Thanksgiving for the Wampanoag tribe and many other native groups has become a day of deep sadness,” Hall said.
Some who do choose to celebrate Thanksgiving say they think of the celebration as an opportunity to simply spend time with loved ones and eat good food.
“I understand that Thanksgiving is a controversial holiday and I sympathize with that,” said Kailani Rossi, a sophomore at New Mexico School for the Arts. “However, my family does not celebrate the events [between] colonists and Natives, but we see it as a time for gathering and family bonding.”
Rossi’s family puts “an emphasis on the thanks in Thanksgiving,” she added. “We use it as a time of reflection and an opportunity to spread happiness.”
Isaiah Sanchez, a sophomore at Santa Fe High, agreed: “Thanksgiving [today] is completely disconnected from the events it’s based on in my family. We just use it as an excuse to eat good food and spend time together.”
Many cultures celebrate and interpret Thanksgiving in varying ways. There is no hiding from the cultural effects of the day, and many locals believe more should be done to bring that context into the light.
Still, whether one chooses to partake in the holiday or not, many agree the most important aspect is to spread acceptance and understanding.
“Even though we don’t agree with the context of the holiday, my family still uses it as a time to gather and be thankful for each other,” Johnson said.
“We show our appreciation for each other through love and jokes,” she said. “That is what the holiday means to me.”