Native American Heritage Month begins in November, a month when many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. While this cultural month has excellent intentions, it is significantly more complicated for Native Americans. Thanksgiving is a difficult period for many Native Americans because of the numerous massacres that occurred around this time.
In fact, many holidays are now a harsh reminder of a violent past that is frequently forgotten, glossed over, or idealized. For many Native Americans, the festivities this season signify the genocide of millions of Native Americans, the theft of Native American lands, forced relocations, and several attempts to eradicate Native American culture.
At the same time, Native American Heritage Month aims to celebrate Indigenous peoples and honor the history of Native Americans across the country. A designated month allows us to reflect on our shared past while also honoring the resiliency and strength of Indigenous people across North America. It provides an opportunity to educate Americans about Indigenous contributions and gives Indigenous people a platform.
While the intentions behind this heritage month are good, it often has unexpected consequences, repercussions, and microaggressions that are painful for some Native Americans. Here are some of the reasons why Native American Heritage Month is a complicated celebration that should be embraced with greater care.
The myth of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Day reminds many Native Americans of the genocide of their people, the theft of their lands, and suffering cultural eradication. Historical documents and testimonies more correctly describe the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621; Native Americans were not invited and the events that followed were hostile and deadly.
After the US was formed, the story of Pilgrims and Native Americans meeting peacefully was developed to support westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. This is just one of the numerous historical misconceptions that make this month so difficult. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of Native American assimilation, forced relocation, and genocide after the European invasion.
The National Day of Mourning
Native Americans have observed the National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving since 1970. This day honors Native ancestors and gives space to mourn the massacres that took place. It’s also a protest against the racism and injustice Native Americans suffer today.
Much of what schools teach about November’s historic events is erroneous or oversimplified. Not long ago it was not uncommon for many students to make paper headdresses and reenact Thanksgiving supper. Native Americans were sometimes presented in classrooms as disappeared people who are no longer around.
Activities like this taught generations of students the misconception that all Native Americans are the same, making it hard for them to understand the unique diversity among the Tribal Nations. This promotes cultural appropriation, and the heritage month curriculum can sometimes perpetuate stereotypes.
Actionable steps and activities to incorporate into Thanksgiving this year
Passively accepting Native Americans and Indigenous peoples isn’t enough to be an ally this month. Non-Natives must decolonize alongside Natives to become allies. Here are some family traditions to add this year.
Learn about the Native American Nations and Tribes in your area
This month, allies may help Native Americans by “doing the work” on their own to learn about Native American history and culture. Using the Native Land app or website to learn whose land you are on is a great start. Although these maps are not perfect, the website is a useful resource for appreciating and learning more about your city, state, or country’s Native past.
Simply enter the name of your place to discover about the languages, treaties, and history of the land you’re on. Even though it does not display the current tribal nation boundaries, you can use this information to learn more about the almost 600 federally recognized tribes in the United States.
Celebrate and recognize Indigenous existence all year round
Some Native Americans refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving, while others continue to do so as a tradition of showing gratitude. For non-Natives, it is possible to express gratitude throughout this season in a way that does not overlook the hardship or presence of Native people.
While it is a great idea to have a month that pays special attention to Indigenous people, true allies will try to celebrate Native American history and cultures all year. Year-round learning includes celebrating Indigenous art and fashion, watching Native American media, reading books by Indigenous authors, supporting grassroots Native-led organizations and companies, and learning about their history and the realities of their lives today.
Incorporate Indigenous foods into your Thanksgiving traditions
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, consider celebrating Thanksgiving with Indigenous foods such as corn, beans, pumpkins, and wild rice. It’s an opportunity for folks who are unfamiliar with Native cultures to learn about Indigenous meals, recipes, and culinary skills while enjoying Native ingredients. This is also an excellent moment to review the distinction between appropriation and appreciation of cultures, as well as to ensure that you are not appropriating traditions in your preparations.