Giving Thanks in The Year of Standing Rock

Tents and tipis at Standing Rock
Tents and tipis at Standing Rock | Photo: Leslieamsterdam, some rights reserved

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

In March, 1621 a man named Samoset, a leader of his Abenaki people, decided to extend an olive branch to the odd people who’d moved into an abandoned Wampanoag town. They were sick and starving. More than half of them had died in the previous six months, and the last time anyone from the neighborhood encountered the newcomers, they got shot at.

But Samoset set that aside. He disregarded the the diseases, kidnappings, and violence that newcomers just like these had brought to the land. He introduced himself in a few words of the newcomers’ language, spent the night as their guest, and then came back with more help. With the technical and material aid provided by Samoset, Tisquantum, and other Native people, the Puritan colonists grew and harvested enough food to survive the next winter.

Three hundred ninety-five years later, Samoset’s descendant Mary Beth Williams thinks her great-many-times grandfather might have made a mistake.

“If he had just let them starve,” says Williams, “America might be very different.”

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in a year in which Native peoples' protests to preserve their land and culture have commanded the nation's attention, it might seems a little strange that Thanksgiving holiday celebrants still mention Native people hardly at all. After all, the holiday is arguably founded on being grateful for the survival of a community that would have perished without Native peoples' help.

And Native people have long been calling attention to the holiday's whitewashing of history. In 1970, the United American Indians of New England declared the holiday a National Day of Mourning, a counter-holiday that has gained some traction among Native activists and their allies, though not to the degree to which Indigenous People's Day has spread as an alternative to Columbus Day.

This year of all years, it seems fitting to reexamine how we should look at the Thanksgiving holiday in the light of renewed and resurgent Native activism. As California sociologist Dan Brook put it in his essay Celebrating Genocide,

So I asked a few Native political and cultural activists of my acquaintance if they had any thoughts to share on the holiday.  

I spoke by phone with Williams, an Abenaki attorney who serves as Chief of Staff in the Oregon State Legislature (and, by way of full disclosure, a friend of many years) as she waited in her car for an oddly appropriate flock of wild turkeys to stop blocking traffic on her way to her family’s home in Eugene.

Day of mourning plaque
Commemorative plaque in Plymouth, Massachusetts | Photo: Gerald Azenaro, some rights reserved

Williams points out that Native people’s material aid to the Pilgrims was almost immediately repaid by egregious insult. The Algonquian peoples of the northeast often built small “death houses” on loved ones’ burial sites, and placed corn and other burial goods within the houses. The settlers raided the death houses for the food offerings they held, a serious cultural offense made even worse by the Pilgrims’ occasional exhumation of the human remains below. That set off a sort of cultural shockwave across the northeast, as one tribe after another began abandoning death houses and placing the burial goods in the grave with the deceased to avoid what they viewed as shocking disrespect.

“Archaeologists can pretty much date a burial site by whether any burial goods remain there,” says Williams. “If there are burial goods, that means the person’s relatives buried them with the departed after Contact. If the burial goods are missing, that means it’s a pre-Contact burial that was looted by settlers.”

“We saved their lives,” notes Williams, “and they turned around and repaid us like that.”

Settler-Native relations went downhill from there, and so it should surprise no one that Thanksgiving — the holiday that ostensibly commemorates the success of the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest — doesn’t sit well with many present-day Native people. 

“Thanks-taking,” Cahuilla/Apache horticulturist Nick Hummingbird gently corrects me when I reach him at his Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery in Pasadena. To Hummingbird, the mainstream celebration has less to do with giving thanks than it does with celebrating the spoils of five centuries of conquest.

“People will be sitting down with their families and feeling grateful for everything they have,” says Hummingbird, “but they don't think about the people who had to give up everything so they could have all those things.”

Hummingbird is especially struck by the juxtaposition of this particular Thanksgiving, and the buzz about the holiday offering a moment to heal a fractured nation, in the same month that Native activists and their supporters are being met with escalating violence at Standing Rock.

That confluence of history and current events has stripped Hummingbird of any interest in taking part in the holiday. Instead, he’s taking the opportunity to reclaim a bit of the land his ancestors relied on, if only for an afternoon. “To tell you the truth, I usually just avoid the whole thing and go hiking in the mountains,” says Hummingbird. “Everybody else stays home, and there’s no one up there to bother me.”

water protectors hit by water cannons at standing rock
Happy Thanksgiving: Police fire water cannons at Standing Rock activists in sub-freezing temperatures. | Photo: Dark Sevier, some rights reserved

David Harper, traditional spokesman for the Mohave Elders Committee on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation in Arizona, is wearing his opposition to Thanksgiving almost literally on his sleeve.

“I am wearing a Native Pride T-shirt in protest of the holiday,” says Harper. “I think speaking up in whatever way we can is especially important this year, when Native people are fighting for their rights at Standing Rock and elsewhere.”

The fact that Native people continue to endure despite continuing repression is important to Harper, who has worked to advocate for his people in disputes ranging from Colorado River water rights to the disproportionate impact of renewable energy development on Native cultural sites. To Harper, empathy for those in need is a foundation of Native cultures.

“Sometimes suffering has long term effects on a people's culture,” says Harper. “But we have to remember to take care of those who are suffering, and who have nothing. We are a kind and compassionate people, and I think we did the right thing by taking in and feeding Pilgrims who had nowhere else to go.”

"We took care of the Pilgrims when they needed help,” says Sage LaPena, a Nomtipom Wintu ethnobotanist and herbalist. “So many of them were dying of scurvy; we treated them with pine needle tea, which has lots of Vitamin C. We showed them how to survive."

​LaPena notes that the whole image of Native people and settlers breaking bread together is especially fraught in California, where Americans more than once took advantage of native ceremonies to commit unspeakable acts. On one occasion in 19th Century California, says LaPena, Americans came to a roundhouse — a large, partly earth sheltered traditional building used for cultural events — while a ceremony of gratitude was in progress. “They sealed the roundhouse door shut with a cross-beam,” says LaPena, “covered the outside walls with tar, and set it on fire. The people inside were burned to death; women, children, old people.”

That could make it hard to want to sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner even a century and a half later, not to mention the orgy of shopping that comes after. "The idea that Thanksgiving is followed by Black Friday shopping is a problem,” says LaPena. “By encouraging buying more and more things, the holiday promotes a consumerism that is very dangerous.”

But LaPena, who I quoted in August about the potential upsides of the invasive weed star thistle, is adept at finding glimmers of hope in even the bleakest situations. Though she makes it clear that the holiday’s horrifying historical context never strays far from her mind, she finds a commonality between the official intent of Thanksgiving and a core tenet of her culture.

"I don't want to deprive my children of an opportunity to learn the importance of giving thanks,” says LaPena. “We need to give thanks for the acorn. We need to give thanks for the seaweed. We need to give thanks for everything Earth Mother provides us.”

Williams and her family celebrate Thanksgiving as well, but this year she says she’s lost any enthusiasm for the holiday. She compared the burial desecrations that started in 1621 — and the deadly European epidemics that preceded them by five years — to this year's Presidential election.

“Back then we extended welcome to the settlers, and they turned around and deprived us of everything,” Williams says. “We lost everything. And this year, with all that we stand to lose now that Donald Trump has been elected, it just feels like 1621 all over again.”

“I'm having a real hard time with white people this Thanksgiving,” Williams adds. “I bought the food, because of our kids. They asked me ‘are we having Thanksgiving this year?’ I told them that we can have the dinner, but I’m not feeling particularly thankful.”

Banner: flags of many Native nations at Standing Rock. Photo: Leslieamsterdam, some rights reserved


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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