A Native Perspective on Thanksgiving

Anoush Ter Taulian attends the Indigenous Day Celebration on Randall’s Island in 2018 with local descendants of Native communities (Photo: Anoush Ter Taulian/The Armenian Weekly)

As Armenians, we are no strangers to denial. Yet in this country, perhaps no community has been dealt the hand of denial more severely than the Native Americans. As Thanksgiving approaches, a day in which Native Americans are so central to the narrative, I decided to delve deeper and investigate the myths that perpetuate this denial, one that continues to traumatize this community in America.

I have been following the struggle of the Native American community since the seventies. Several times, I even traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts with activists from the International Action Center (IAC) to familiarize myself with the native perspective on Thanksgiving, in particular. We visited the Wampanoag tribe (the People of the Dawn), a community that is indigenous to the Plymouth area.

During this trip, I met Moonanum James, a co-leader of the United American Indians of New England (UAINE). He explained that for Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a joyous holiday. Among other things, the UAINE is known for starting the National Day of Mourning, which falls each year on Thanksgiving Day, as a way of protesting the holiday. The origins of the Day of Mourning date back to 1970, when Wamasutta Frank James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, was invited by Plymouth town officials to give a speech on Thanksgiving Day. But when officials read a copy of it before the ceremony, they told him it was prohibited. That’s because he had planned to speak at length about the violence that occurred against native peoples.

Every year since then, the Wampanoags gather on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth. Hundreds of supporters join in their ceremony to honor their ancestors and protest the ongoing racism and oppression they experience and to tell their true history. They stand facing different directions and blow a conch shell. The directions they blow the conch represent the “directions” of Mother Earth. They tell of how in 1637, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, ordered the killing of the Pequot people, another tribe which was based in Connecticut. At night, when Pequot women and children were sleeping, his soldiers burned their villages and when they returned, Bradford gave them a dinner in honor of their bloody victory and safe return. He proclaimed an official Day of Thanksgiving.

Native Americans decry the myth of “the friendly Pilgrims” and the 1621 Pilgrim-Native dinner. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag community, had heard gunfire and sent 60 of his soldiers who discovered the settlers were celebrating their harvest. He decided to bring food and joined them even though he knew the Europeans had robbed his mother’s grave, stolen their corn and had already enslaved some of his people.

The settlers regarded the Wampanoag as soulless heathens. Some were thankful when the Wampanoag died from the smallpox disease the settlers had brought, so that they could take their land. Both parties distrusted each other, but perhaps were just trying to get more information about each other.

By 1675, over 50,000 European settlers were taking Native land. A Wampanoag chief, King Phillips, led a rebellion; his head was posted on a pike in the town square for 20 years after he was killed by the English.

I found out the settlers didn’t land on Plymouth Rock which is actually a small boulder. They didn’t wear black clothes with a buckle. Yet, the town of Plymouth gets millions of tourist dollars, while many Native people are impoverished and have high infant mortality and suicide rates.

Today, the UAINE marches around the town of Plymouth to protest the continued misrepresentation and commercialization of its history.

In 1997 they won a court case against the town of Plymouth, where demonstrators (including children and elders) were arrested and pepper-sprayed. As part of the settlement, there are plaques acknowledging Native history, including one which is displayed where King Phillips’ head was on display for two decades; there’s also an educational fund to teach children in schools about native history.

The UAINE also protests the racist use of Native names of sports teams (the Atlanta Braves and the Redskins) and cars (Cherokee). They rally for a more accurate representation of Native people in films and textbooks.

Many Native people think the pleasant narrative of Thanksgiving taught in schools hides the truth and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Native people.

Many Native people think the pleasant narrative of Thanksgiving taught in schools hides the truth and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Native people. It was actually the Natives who had a tradition of giving, and today, they feel Thanksgiving is just a reminder of the betrayal of their hospitality and helping the settlers survive. They consider it a propaganda tool of the invaders who create false memories to make themselves look good, while hiding their crimes.

Dennis W. Zotigh works as a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan, the San Juan Pueblo Einter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat. In his blog “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” he feels Thanksgiving, as it is taught American schools, is a mockery of Native culture and history.

Jaqueline Keeler, of Dineh and Yankton Dakota heritage says Thanksgiving is really “a U.S. celebration of early arrivals in a European invasion” that culminated in the death of up to 30 million native people.

Many Americans don’t want to hear anything that will detract from their happy family gatherings on Thanksgiving, but if they want to show solidarity, they can do so by posting #NationalMourningDay on social media and sharing the UAINE website.

On Thanksgiving, I hope Armenians especially, in solidarity with Native Americans, can say a prayer for their ancestors who also died in a genocide.

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Anoush Ter Taulian

Anoush Ter Taulian is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley. In 1992, she decided to relocate to Artsakh where she volunteered in the liberation struggle alongside Monte Melkonian. She has depicted the Armenian struggle for freedom in poetry, paintings, videos, and radio. A lifelong activist speaking in schools, churches, and at anti-racism conferences, Anoush continues to bring up current attacks on Artsakh at indigenous, women's, and political conferences.

18 Comments

  1. Again this leftist propaganda? Isn’t this the same person who wrote the article claiming just because her skin is white she isn’t white? Stop spreading your propaganda, especially on an Armenian news outlets. We don’t but your garbage. Your self hatred your anti Caucasian rhetoric.

    • Any similarities you see between what happened to Native Americans and Armenians?

      Also, she is a follower of Monte Melkonian who is a Marxist. Read his Right to Struggle.

    • it is amazing how you (baron hakop) arrived to you conclusions based on this informative well written and very important article…the mind…and how most people’s are not screwed correctly…WOW

    • The Indians were slaughtered by the Europeans that’s a right fact and the Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks that’s a right fact and not only did the Turks slaughter Armenians they also slaughter innocent civilian Greeks in the most horrendous ways so how do I know I am old enough to have spoken to an eye witness who saw his parents throats cut and his sisters breast cut off by the Turks . A fact that seems to have been ignored by a gutless world. Genocide was invented by the Turks and they continue to deny it what a cover up . The same disregard is occurring in USA to a wonderful and resourceful people . The Cheyenne ran rings around the United States Army sent to subdue them.

  2. Thank you, Anoush Ter Taulian, for your thoughtful meditation on the many meanings of Thanksgiving. It seems to me there is an important parallel here…an ancient nation, driven from its native land, largely massacred, with that terrible history largely unacknowledged. The only important difference that I see is that it is against the law and you risk jail or worse in Turkey if you even mention the Armenian Genocide, and in the US, it is possible to talk about the fate of the Native Indians without risk from the Government. I was very happy to see the Natl Museum of the American Indian open up, it was about time! So I am delighted to see this intelligent, insightful article. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Anush, for reminding us of the truth of the original Thanksgiving, and the genocide against Native Americans, the ongoing violations against them. As Armenian-Americans, we should recognize that it’s long overdue that Thanksgiving becomes a recognition of this history, instead of the false history that perpetuates and still deeply permeates culture in the U.S. I have been thinking about this for years without taking action, but your article has moved me to discuss this with my family during Thanksgiving dinner and to look for other ways to support this cause, liking contributing to the National Congress of American Indians. Here’s an article with this and other ways to help: https://mashable.com/2015/11/26/native-american-thanksgiving/#KsyV.ZWC0Pqy

  3. Thank you for this powerful article. My Syrian-Christian grandparents also fled the Ottomans. Though they were more fortunate than our Armenian sisters and brothers, they too were refugees. I also live in northern Canada, where there is are many survivors of the Genocide toward our First Nations people.
    I am very grateful to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada and all of North America who welcome us.
    This article somehow brings together my own ancestry with the ancestry of the people I now live among.
    Since the Prime Minister of Canada apologized to our First Nations Peoples in 2008, we have begun the long journey of healing our country. I would strongly encourage the US and Turkey to join as well. It is a tremendous source of hope and peace.

  4. Thanks for publishing the article on the Native American perspective of Thanksgiving. History is written by the victors, and as an Armenian-American, I want to hear the voices of those who have been robbed, displaced, and persecuted.

  5. Any one who doubts the mistreatment of Native Americans should read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. As Americans of Armenian descent we should respect those that suffered as we did, not ignore their struggle just because we disagree with their politics. What happened to Native Americans is a blight on all of us who call this great country our home.
    We Americans not descended from Native Americans should know that the American Indians continue to suffer from poverty, highest unemployment and alcoholism and that must stop.

    Arthur Bedrosian son of Genocide survivors.

  6. I heard an interview with some Indians on a radio show, and they called Thanksgiving “Genocide Coverup Day”.

    “The Addams Family Values” had the best look at Thanksgiving, as Wednesday tells the truth about what happened.

  7. For years now, Virginia and Massachusetts have been arguing about the First Thanksgiving. Although it is the Plymouth version that predominates (with Pilgrims, tall hats, etc.) and generates the commercial activity, in actuality the first true Thanksgiving took place in 1618 at Berkeley Plantarion on the banks of the James River, and it was an act of prayerful thanks to the Lord for allowing the settlers to cross the ocean. As readers of my book may have noticed, Martin ye Armenian may have been among them! 400 years ago this year.

  8. Appreciation for pieces drawing solidarity and connection between our communities as survivors of genocide. For those that would decry this as “leftist propaganda”, what then are you saying about what it means to be right-leaning? That you’re ok with genocide and annihilation as long as it’s not happening to you and yours? How odd.

  9. When we were children, every “Thanksgiving” gathering began with a reminder from our Uncle Aram that “it’s not Thanksgiving for the Indians.” It gave us something to think about.

  10. There’s no doubt that Native Americans were horribly treated by the United States government, with many promises broken. And they have certainly endured a lot of discrimination over the ensuing years since the time that the Europeans began arriving. No doubt that “The First Thanksgiving’ story we were all taught in schools wasn’t necessarily factual — or at the very least, wasn’t including ALL the facts.
    I do think it’s important to remember however, that how a tradition, a practice, or holiday BEGAN isn’t necessarily how it should be judged contemporarily.
    The origins of Christmas, in the form that it’s traditionally celebrated, with the Christmas tree for example, are pagan, but Christians all around the world, including Armenians, certainly aren’t celebrating the pagan rituals of the winter solstice. They are celebrating something else entirely, and ascribe the symbols of the holiday in an completely different way.
    Millions of people around the world do Yoga as a form of stretching, destressing and improving posture and mental health. But Yoga, in it’s purest form was originally designed as a form of worship of the Gods of Hinduism, Buddism and Jainism. That doesn’t mean that someone who is ONLY using the positions to stretch out their back and do some deep breathing to destress after a long day a work is worshipping Shiva.
    Much the same, I don’t think I know ANYONE in this day and age, who is sitting at their dinner table on Thanksgiving day, talking about the Pilgrims or Jamestown. When people are celebrating Thanksgiving, they aren’t celebrating the killing of Native Americans 400 years ago. They’re gathering their families around, celebrating their love for each other, strengthening relationships and telling each other the things they are thankful for.
    They’re donating food to local homeless shelters and soup kitchens, or even volunteering there. They’re inviting new neighbors or elderly shut-ins to their home to enjoy the meal with them, or visiting the elderly in nursing homes.
    While we certainly should recognize the faults and wrongs of things as they occurred in our nation’s past, (because it’s only through that acknowledgment there can be a conscientious effort to prevent it from happening again) there’s a difference between THAT and ascribing evil intent on the beautiful thing that will be happening in millions of homes, soup kitchens and homeless shelters this coming Thursday as friends, families and community members gather together to break bread, and express their gratitude.
    The world is filled with enough darkness. Let’s recognize and celebrate the light when we see it.

  11. Thank you Anoush. Years ago an American Indian lawyer named Louise Cobell (Sioux I believe) sued the USA for cheating Indians for a very long time. The case went on for years but was finally settled. There are stories and interviews with Indian tribes that I found sad but enlightening about American Indians and the treatment they received on an app with ROKU. Babies, children, women, elderly and men murdered by the United States government of that time. The move westward by foreigners, Europeans, created the need for more space so the government murdered Indians. Treaties were made and broken. The Indian community was sent to reservations and then moved again and again. sound familiar? People, indigenous people, moved hungry and cold where many died as planned by the government. I have written about this many times since I followed Louise Cobell’s lawsuit daily. Our grandparents and parents witnessed the horrific death of so many, too many of our people. The human tragedy that befell the American Indian was the precursor of what happened to our people and in both instances neither were admitted as an inhuman act to eradicate an indigenous people. On Thanksgiving Day I will celebrate with my family but also mourn for our indigenous. You can read about Louise Cobell on line by typing in her name and also, watch the stories about the different indigenous surviving tribes on the ROKU app called All Native American History.

  12. SO, do we all now understand why the federal government of the USA so far hasn’t recognized the Armenian genocide, how could it, when it is guilty of the same exact crime…it’s like one killer accusing another killer of murder. we should all boycott any commemoration that celebrates the victory of one side at the expense of the other sides’ tragedy…it’s just wrong

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