The under-told Thanksgiving story

Travis Knoll

This week in elementary schools nationwide, children will hear stories about the brave Pilgrims who suffered through the long winters of the 1620s to maintain a successful British colony in Massachusetts. In the telling of that story, the Mayflower Compact will be hailed as the first example of self-governance in the New World, the importance of religious freedom will be emphasized, and if we’re lucky, some mention will be made of indigenous “help” that “complemented” the colonists’ ingenuity. Or perhaps no historical references will be made at all, and everyone will be happy merely to enjoy America as it is today with some turkey, stuffing, football and an extra day with family.

I propose an alternative event, similar to the one that took place this Thursday at the Longhorn American Indian Council’s Harvest Dinner. We need conversation that challenges the traditional — and fictional — Eurocentric paradigm.

At the dinner, LAIC director Amanda Nelson spoke about the discrepancy between the familiar Thanksgiving narrative and what actually happened. Absent from elementary textbooks, she pointed out, is the story of how the Pilgrims stole corn and robbed Wampanoag graves. Nor do the textbooks mention that the meal was not just set up by Europeans to praise God but also coincided with a Native American harvest feast, which had been tradition long before Europeans arrived. Amalia Hernandez, the group’s co-director, spoke about the dangers of cultural appropriation, especially when that appropriation has roots in an attempted ethnic cleansing and, at best, is only a caricature of a narrow sample of indigenous cultures.

The dinner also featured discussions about seldom-recognized Native American contributions to the U.S. political system, such as the Constitution framers’ use of the Iroquois Confederacy as a model for our federal system of government. Also addressed were cultural differences between the natives and the colonists, like the fluidity of Native American gender roles as opposed to the more strictly patriarchal European model. The group also discussed the struggle to stay faithful to native heritage and not allow its appropriation without our consultation. For example, we’d prefer to avoid the “Indian crying over a polluted river” image being used even for causes as worthy as the environmental movement.

The most emotional moment for me was the speech by Cherokee LAIC member Tyler Durman about the crisis of identity that many Native American students face. In his speech, Durman recalled being asked the question, “How much Native American are you?” and talked about the difficulty of social organization in a society where indigenous is not a primary, easily recognizable identity. He proposed a broader definition of what it means to be indigenous. Skepticism by registered tribal members about loosening the definition of “Native American” arises from the attempts of some people to use their Native American heritage to game the system for scholarships and health care. However, much of the basis for the debate is at best a fundamental misunderstanding of how identity works. At worst, it’s an attempt to discredit Native American activists with precarious “blood quantum” status as “not native enough to be credible” despite their years of work. Although it is efficient, blood quantum is a colonial construct that does not merely apply legal limits for administrative purposes, but implicitly puts a number on identity and undermines cultural self-determination.
Durman’s remarks reminded me of my birth family’s own identity crisis related to the blood quantum system. Because our Native American ancestry has been diluted over the generations, we do not qualify for legal recognition. Many relatives are frustrated by not receiving the benefits offered to tribal members, but others are content to look at family photos and accept that personal identity is not a legal question.

The members of the LAIC likely know all about these issues, but it is important for those with little knowledge of America’s indigenous cultures to engage in dialogue with Native Americans on campus.  Native students, for our part, should listen with patience and keep the dialogue frank and charitable. We should realize, as Durman pointed out in a moment of optimism, that “we have come a long way.” That can be seen in the numerous voices that have begun to speak out on Native American issues. Our society is finally recognizing the offensiveness of racist mascots for sports teams, sexualized “Native women” Hooters costumes, and the headband-and-feather mentality that commercializes our culture and ossifies dated historic misconceptions about our peoples. We ourselves still have many doubts about indigenous identity and how to live in a way that respects that identity.  We will celebrate Thanksgiving when we can sit at the table and have an open European-Indigenous dialogue. Such discussions as the ones that happened Thursday are a step in the right direction.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.