Seattle's Child

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Thanksgiving and Native history

Author Brooke Pinkham with her family in 2019. Photo by Joshua Huston

This Thanksgiving, teach kids accurate Native history

Understand why many Native People don't love this holiday

It takes a great deal of patience to parent. Either you’ve already come equipped with the attribute, or you acquire the skill after a few years of surviving toddler-dom.

Being the mother of a 10-year-old and a 3-year-old is no doubt rewarding, but there’s only so much gentle reminding one can give. Patience, additionally, extends beyond waiting with bated breath for them to do-it-themselves; it’s allowing your child room to grow, to experience tough obstacles, to learn to speak up for themselves, and to endure with them tough conversations.

For instance, conversations with our son have involved topics on homelessness, poverty, death, trauma, anti-Semitism and racism. My husband and I intend for our long-haired, brown-skinned boy to grasp racism and bigotry most importantly. It’s something that I, and many others in my community have endured for decades and unfortunately, it’s important not just for his growth but also for his survival.

Growing up in a small town and within the community of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation I wasn’t prepared for the “big city.” Since moving to Seattle more than 20 years ago, I’ve endured countless awkward remarks and questions about my racial makeup, and stereotypical assumptions of what and who a Native person should be. For the record, I’m a proud citizen of the Niimiipuu, and in Novemberwe give special attention to the first people of this nation during Native American Heritage Month.

Beyond participating in the many events around the city, I urge you to educate yourself more deeply on who Native people are. Further, I encourage you to engage in what might be tough conversations with your family, your child’s school, and other non-Native people in your community. There are plenty of resources to guide you, and below is some information to help you get started.

The Thanksgiving narrative

First, let’s talk about Thanksgiving. You may have heard that Native folks aren’t keen on the holiday, and that’s for good reason. One, the story you’ve been told is likely an inaccurate rendition. Two, this holiday regurgitates stereotypical depictions of Native people while trivializing our central role in American history. For a truer history on the Thanksgiving narrative, see this article from the New York Times. For more balanced and historically accurate approaches to teaching the Thanksgiving story, advise your children’s teachers to go here and here; and last, see this article for ways to make your Thanksgiving about activism.

The miseducation of Thanksgiving is a prime (but sadly not the only) example of how our school systems have failed our children, not just Native children, but everyone. Native American history is American history, and as families and schools if we don’t teach history from a balanced and accurate perspective, we prolong suffering and avoid the necessary and overdue healing process.

As you read more about the true history of Thanksgiving, you’ll learn it’s not a tale of pilgrims and Indians coming together in a friendly feast.  It’s a story of genocide – the slaughter and massacre of hundreds of indigenous people. These are no doubt difficult conversations, yet necessary if you truly want to make amends against the decades of disregard for our community. Further, there is much to learn from common Native core values: such as reverence for elders, sharing of wealth, family values, respect and relationship to our natural environment, protection of our natural environment and healthy ways of living through indigenous foods and medicine, to name a few.

Racism and stereotypes

Misinformation and stereotypical images of Native people are harmful. This not only erases the contemporary contributions of Native people, it fuels ignorant and racist behavior. Statistically, Native people are among the highest population disproportionately affected by almost any negative socioeconomic indicators. For instance, there are high disproportionate rates of incarcerated Native people, high incidences of police brutality against Native people, high rates of violence against Native women and children, there is an epidemic of youth suicide, and inadequate health care, to name a few.

For Native people, this month, and every month, we celebrate the beauty of our culture as well as the generations of survival, perseverance and self-determination. We honor our elders who have paved the way and held on to our traditions which guide us and keep us healthy.  This month we also celebrate Native activists, scholars, lawyers, physicians, professional athletes, scientists, musicians, artists, authors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and protectors of our natural environment.  We celebrate that we are still here, building stronger communities despite historical circumstances.

There are so many in my community putting in tough work. Please consider giving your dollars to the various organizations: United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, Seattle Indian Health Board, the Chief Seattle Club,  Urban Native Education Alliance, Na’ah Illahee Fund, wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ House at the University of Washington, and Mother Nation, to name a few.

More about Native people and tribes:

  • Nationally, there are more than 500 tribal groups represented within the United States, and each tribal nation is diverse in tradition, custom and language.
  • Within the boundaries of what is now Washington State, there are more than 29 tribal nations.
  • Tribes are sovereign nations, much like federal and state governments, and have inherent rights to access traditional resources. Treaties, secured within the U.S. Constitution, ensure that tribes maintain these rights.
  • Tribes contributed over $11.8 million to charitable organizations in Washington state in the year 2012 alone, and even more ($12.7 million in 2013). Thousands of organizations (tribal and non-tribal), from school districts to food banks to youth groups to religious organizations to performing arts, have received financial aid from the tribes.
  • In 2015, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5433 requiring the inclusion of tribal sovereignty “Since Time Immemorial” curriculum be taught in all schools (K-12).
  • Natives serve in the military at the highest rate of any ethnic group.
  • Native men (and women) wear their hair long for various reasons, and to keep them connected to their tribe and culture.
  • Each year Pacific Northwest tribes come together for the tribal Canoe Journey. This journey includes a weeklong celebration and recognition of traditional methods of transportation and is a significant cultural experience for all who participate. Tribal Canoe Journey ” … honors and nourishes the unique relationships and connections with the land, water, and one another.” Festivities are open to the public.

Some other tips:

  • Don’t assume how Native people should look, dress, or act; we are a diverse people.
  • Never ask a Native person their “blood” quantum, or how much “Indian” they are. It’s weird.
  • Traditional Native attire is worn for special occasion; avoid Halloween costumes and other wear that trivializes who we are.
  • Seek out children’s books that depict contemporary Native people (and are written or illustrated by Native people).
  • Attend Native community events and happenings that are open to the public. The more you hang out with our community, the more likely you’re exposed to our witty humor and amazing cuisine.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in November 2019. To learn more about how the author and her family approach holidays, check out “Seattle family combines Jewish, Native traditions to emphasize prayer and giving all year long.”

About the Author

Brooke Pinkham

Brooke Pinkham is the Director of the Center for Indian Law and Policy at Seattle University. As an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, she provided direct representation and advocacy on behalf of tribal members throughout Washington State. Brooke is Nez Perce and grew up within the community of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. She has served on the Boards for the National Native American Law Students Association, the Washington State Bar Association Indian Law Section, and the Northwest Indian Bar Association.