What Native Americans Want You to Know on Thanksgiving

Nov 27, 2013 at 10am

Photo by ClintJCL

This week school children everywhere will be dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians to reenact the first Thanksgiving. They’ll learn that the starving Pilgrims were saved by a group of Indians who generously donated barrels of corn and squash. That these two groups – despite speaking different languages and a long history of violence – looked past their differences to break bread together.

When I was in kindergarten, my parents refused to let me partake in these seemingly innocent holiday activities. For my father, who is a Pueblo Indian from the Ohkay Owigeh reservation, seeing his daughter weave plastic feathers into her hair and smile benevolently at the blondest students in class (who were always chosen to represent Pilgrims) was a gross misrepresentation of Native history and a perfect example of modern cultural appropriation.

It’s not that we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving – we do. Our family's meal looks like any other family’s traditional feast. It’s just that my Mexican mother and Native American father know that the history surrounding that historical and isolated meal is bloody and sad, and that ethnic minorities, especially Native Americans, are still fighting an uphill battle for equal rights and accurate representation in United States history. No amount of free corn and squash is going to fix it. 

For example, just last week – hundreds of years after the first Thanksgiving – a high school cheerleading squad in McCalla, Alabama decided to welcome a rival team during the state football playoff game with a large banner reading, “ Hey Indians, get ready to leave in a Trail of Tears Round 2.” The inappropriate sign quickly went viral among Native American groups who protested its gross insensitivity. Not only was the rival team named after a racial group, but the opposing cheerleaders chose to use a historical event where thousands of Natives were forced into exile and murdered as a representation for their high school football game. 

How did this happen in the 21st century? If the cheerleaders had used the Holocaust or even slavery as an example, the media would've been up in arms over the blatant racism. But because the offense was directed towards Native Americans, it largely went unreported except by Natives themselves. 

And this isn’t the only way that Natives are being misused as sports mascots. Controversy has surrounded the Washington Redskins for years over whether or not they should change their team name. The term “redskins” is a racial slur referencing Native skin color. I thought that in this day and age it was universally accepted that any term referencing a person’s skin color was always inappropriate and rude. Yet, Sunday after Sunday the Washington Redskins are introduced to adoring fans toting fake headdresses, ridiculous face paint, and other traditional and sacred Native symbols that have been turned into commodities for souvenir shops. The NFL would never allow a team to call themselves the New York Jews, or the San Francisco Chinamen. Why then is it so common to commodify Native Americans? 

Those in defense of the Redskins name and those school administrators who saw no fault in the banner, might say that there are bigger issues to tackle regarding Native American affairs that extend beyond the gridiron. I agree – changing the name of a football team won’t change the rampant poverty and drug abuse on many reservations or the government policies and federal budget cuts that keep Natives ostracized. But it’s a start. It is often too easy to marginalize a people that make up less than 2 percent of the national population, and if nothing else, the Washington Redskins scandal is forcing families throughout the nation to talk about Native Americans not as historical figures but modern Americans who have played an important role in the history of this nation and deserved to be treated with respect. 

It’s a difficult topic with a lot of history, but this week more than ever is time to reflect on the historical significance of Native Americans – from the first Thanksgiving to the occupation of Alcatraz – and how an entire race is openly being marginalized and commodified. After all, we could've just let those damn Pilgrims starve.

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