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Dec. 8, 2022

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Native Seattleites are ‘taking back’ Thanksgiving

Observance retooled to rid it of inaccuracies

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SEATTLE — When she was in grade school in the early 1990s, Duwamish tribal council member Desirée Rose Fagan remembers her class wearing colonial-style pilgrim hats to a school assembly for Columbus Day, and learning the myth of Indigenous peoples and pilgrims peacefully gathering for Thanksgiving.

“It was taught to be like ‘kumbaya,’ ” Fagan said. “The pilgrims and Indians shared a meal of their harvest and they were friends.”

Every year for Thanksgiving, her grandmother would host a dinner. Now, Fagan spends the holiday with family, but they don’t celebrate the traditional story of harmonious relations between Native folk and colonial settlers. Instead, they set the table with traditional Native food, focus on family and teach the truth about Thanksgiving.

The Native Art Market at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center is also on Fagan’s calendar every Thanksgiving weekend. These are a couple of examples of how Seattleites have found personal and public ways to reframe the holiday by centering Native peoples and traditions while rejecting Thanksgiving’s false narrative and the accompanying stereotypes about Native people.

For starters, there was nothing “first” about the “first Thanksgiving.” In 1621, there was a shared feast between the Wampanoag tribe members and the new Mayflower settlers, but Native tribes and colonial settlers had both celebrated harvests for hundreds of years before then. And there’s no evidence that anyone marked this particular feast as a special “Thanksgiving.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century that New England residents looked back to the 1621 feast and declared it the “first Thanksgiving” to fit a narrative of peace and sharing around the holiday they had created. That narrative erroneously suggests that New England colonists lived peacefully with the Native peoples in the area, sharing food and resources.

In reality, the relationship between colonists and Native peoples across the U.S. was often ugly and cruel: It involved disease brought by the colonists that killed hundreds of thousands of Native people, plus war, violence and land theft.

Some also feel the story of Thanksgiving stereotypes Native people and ignores that history of genocide, racism and violence against Native people. In fact, since 1970, many Native people have acknowledged the holiday not as Thanksgiving, but as a National Day of Mourning.

“To celebrate Thanksgiving as if the relationship between the United States and Indigenous peoples is cooperative and has been since the 1600s would be convincing yourself of lies and allowing propaganda to inform your reality,” said Annicette Gillam (Kiowa), a University of Washington senior and member of First Nations at UW.

Faced with this disconnect between the myth and reality of the holiday, many Native groups have taken Thanksgiving traditions into their own hands.

On Nov. 22, two days before Thanksgiving, the First Nations at UW group will host a dinner on campus featuring performances, talks and a special menu.

“For me, it’s about celebrating that Indigenous peoples (have been here) and we’re going to continue to be here,” said First Nations at UW co-chair Kaila Red Bow (Oglala Lakota Sioux).

The annual event is now called Taking Back the Dinner, but it originated back in 2004, when the American Indian Student Commission hosted a private potluck dinner for Native students and their advisers on campus.

Telling ‘untold story’

Over the years, the event has grown to include performances, speakers and an expanded guest list, as well as more active goals to celebrate the “untold story of the holiday” and to educate the general public about Native perspectives on Thanksgiving.

“The intent was to take back the narrative around Thanksgiving,” said Red Bow, “and acknowledge it for its true history as Indigenous peoples know it.”

Past events have featured faculty speakers debunking myths about Thanksgiving or highlighting Indigenous history, as well as performances by Native artist groups.

Although the event has expanded into a multifaceted gathering, for senior Red Bow, who double majors in food systems and American Indian studies, re-imagining the holiday begins with the food itself.

“If we’re going to have a big dinner and we’re going to feast, what does that mean to us? (There’s) the understanding of plant and animal relations for tribes, and it’s also harvest time,” Red Bow said. “There’s a lot of Indigenous knowledge on a plate, and the food doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, but food is a huge holder for culture for our peoples.”

This year’s dinner will feature an intertribal, multicourse meal from Indigenous chef Jason Vickers, who will speak about the personal and cultural significance of each course he prepares.

“Food can be someone’s culture, someone’s story,” Red Bow said.

In the future, Red Bow would like to see more people rethinking Thanksgiving in educational settings, ensuring stereotypes of Native peoples are not being promoted. She’d also like to see tribal representatives discuss the complexities of the holiday, whether it should be celebrated, or even changing the holiday’s name.

“Not enough people take enough time to really reflect on what is this holiday, why do we have it and what does it mean to the people whose lands you’re on,” Red Bow said.

In the meantime, she says, just thinking about what’s on your plate is a great place to start: What does it mean to you, whose lands did your food grow on and who are you supporting by buying that product?

“Today, many Americans view Indigenous people as extinct and a relic of the past. We are ambiguous enemies in colonist history (against) who U.S. presidents won their first military victories and fodder in Western cowboy movies,” said Gillam, the First Nations at UW senior.

“Hosting events like Taking Back the Dinner is a celebration of our many cultures,” Gillam said, “and the resilience our communities have demonstrated in the face of an oppressor who has done their best to consume the resources of the lands we cultivated and convince themselves we are no longer present.”

At the Duwamish Longhouse’s annual Native Art Market, customers are invited to support Native artists and makers as an alternative to Black Friday sales at big-box stores.

“We always have it Thanksgiving weekend and that is intentional, and that is to focus on the Indigenous people of Seattle and reframing what typically Thanksgiving has been marketed to be about,” said Fagan, the Duwamish council member. “If you are going to shop, why would you not shop and support local Native small businesses, artists and the Indigenous people of Seattle?”

Even though the market is held on Thanksgiving weekend, the event itself has little to do with Thanksgiving, though there will be food, namely homemade fry bread and salmon chowder.

Still, Fagan says, centering Native art and people during a holiday that has historically misrepresented Native people feels important.

“Instead of some of the romanticized stories about Thanksgiving that have been passed down from generation to generation in this country, doing the arts market on that particular weekend was a chance to shine light on Indigenous peoples,” she said.

But the market isn’t anti-Thanksgiving.

“No one is trying to take away anyone’s traditions,” Fagan said.

“This is just part of our history and part of our past of everything that’s happened to our people,” said Fagan, whose great-grandparents are both survivors of residential schools. “A lot of the language, the culture, some things got lost due to that, and there is generational trauma that have been passed down. I can pin it back to boarding school. So reclaiming our culture throughout these years and bringing it back and actually having a place to have an arts market feels like a miracle to us.”

While Thanksgiving seems to take up most of the air this time of year, November is also Native American Heritage Month, and there are several Native arts markets held this month and beyond to celebrate Native cultures.

And each year the support only seems to grow. Booth space for the market this year has already sold out, and each year customers fill up the Seattle City Light parking lot across the street from the Longhouse to attend the market.

“It doesn’t feel combative at all,” Fagan said of reframing Thanksgiving in the context of Native traditions. “It feels like reeducating and having love and compassion for each other. If you come, it’s showing support.”

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