For environmental economics and policy making junior Rondo Begay, growing up in Navajo Nation was not easy.
“A lot of people think that that whole time frame when natives lived like that way out in the middle of nowhere and were taken to boarding schools that that happened a long, long time ago,” Begay said. “But it happened in my lifetime; I experienced it.”
He said there was no running water nor electricity on the reservation, which was located in New Mexico, and they had to haul water and chop wood for fire in order to get through everyday life.
So it doesn’t come through as a surprise that Thanksgiving is just another ordinary day.
“Boarding school was where I heard about Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said. “It wasn’t something we learned at home.”
A friendship gone wrong
“The idea of (American) Indians and Europeans coming together and sharing a meal was a foreign concept (for me),” Begay said. “We didn’t have a whole lot of information about that.”
Begay, the co-chair of the North American Indigenous Student Organization, said he didn’t start to question the holiday and the history behind how it came to be until he was older. When he dug deeper into the history of it, he couldn’t help but wonder why the people who helped the first settlers survive were nearly wiped out by those same people.
Assistant Director of Undergraduate Diversity for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Stephanie Chau said the problem with the history of the holiday is that it is never told in the American Indian perspective.
“I wish people would recognize some of the tragedies that occurred to those natives that were for the first Thanksgiving. The tragedies that happened to them afterwards, I don’t think are commonly known or acknowledged,” said Chau, a citizen of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Not so long after the first dubbed Thanksgiving, American Indians were viewed negatively by the pilgrims and were being wiped out to the point of near extinction through war or diseases, such as smallpox, especially with the arrival of more settlers.
“These were diseases that were brought over, and sometimes they were spread intentionally and sometimes unintentionally,” Chau said. “There have been historically proven cases and well-documented (cases) that smallpox was spread intentionally in native communities.”
American Indian traits
NAISO adviser Pat Dyer-Deckrow acknowledges that the holiday is a painful memory for some American Indians because of how the native populations were treated shortly after the first Thanksgiving dinner, giving the holiday a similar connotation to that of Columbus Day.
However, she tends to look past this. Instead, she sees it as a more spiritual holiday and an opportunity to give thanks to the creator and to spend time with family, which is very important in native traditions.
She also said the idea of giving thanks is deeply rooted in American Indian traditions and prayers.
“For us though, it’s every day, not one single day,” Dyer-Deckrow said. “So that was one of the things with our prayers. You thank God for what you have, and you pray for the things you can’t control. But basically our whole culture is being appreciative of what you have.”
But society nowadays doesn’t always view the holiday as a time for counting blessings. Dyer-Deckrow said she was critical of how consumer-centric Thanksgiving has become.
Begay said he also perceives the holiday as a way to celebrate and be thankful for the end of a cycle.
“So we have cycles. Everything happens in a cycle, and this would be the time when things are starting to go back into the earth. Things are starting to die, animals hibernate,” he said.
Dyer-Deckrow said a better time to have the holiday would be in October to celebrate the harvest, which is what Thanksgiving was celebrated for in the first place.
Giving thanks is for everyone
Despite the holiday’s controversial history, Chau said she always gets together with her family on Thanksgiving because it’s easy to bring all family members together since everyone has the day off.
“I think any day is a good day to give thanks,” she said. “I think we could all agree with that and there’s nothing wrong with, you know, having a day where you give thanks. So I think that’s something that we can all look to as a good thing.”
Hospitality business junior and NAISO Co-Chair Karley Rivard has always celebrated the holiday because she doesn’t view Thanksgiving as the idea of two races coming together over dinner in the historical sense, but a way to connect with family.
“I like to view Thanksgiving in a more positive connotation,” she said, adding that most people tend to be busy in their everyday lives and not have much time to get together with their families. For her, the holiday is a way to change that.
What Rivard finds inappropriate about celebrating the holidays nowadays is that some schools have children dress up as Native Americans and pilgrims.
“They freeze Native Americans in time,” Rivard said, adding that such an act would lead to ignorance of the struggles that Native Americans face today.
Chau said instead of celebrating in such a way, schools should be more keen about telling history from the American Indian perspective too.
“Well, I think it needs to start in schools really, the curriculum needs to be more inclusive, it needs to be more truthful, it needs to tell more of the story instead of just a one-sided view of history,” she said.
Rivard said the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, which she’s a part of, have a similar tradition called the Ghost Supper. For the occasion, families would prepare a dinner to give thanks and pay tribute to their ancestors.
Begay agreed that when celebrating Thanksgiving these days, people don’t always celebrate the history of it thinking back on the pilgrims and the American Indians.
“I guess personally the way I felt about it really is the idea of having the period of time to sit down and think about all the things that you’re thankful for,” he said. “It is really good for any human being.”