As I grow older and hopefully wiser, I discover there are things I learned that were incomplete or inaccurate. Thanksgiving is one of those things.
While for some, this holiday represents a triumph of early settlers in what eventually became the thirteen colonies. For the Native people this holiday is a time of mourning.
In our Native communities, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of the loss of life, loss of land and a grieving for their ancestors who died from diseases like smallpox, measles and the flu. Many of those who survived disease were eventually murdered, like those in the Arapahoe tribe. During the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, US Military soldiers invaded a sleeping camp not far from where I write this. Women and children were slaughtered under the American Flag posted at the camp entrance, signifying another broken promise.
On the Trail of Tears, Cheyenne were driven from their homelands thousands of miles on foot, starved, beaten and raped. Three thousand Native people died and the few who survived were herded onto reservations to be physically and emotionally starved for the next two hundred years. Entire tribes have been wiped out completely. Thousands of children were indoctrinated and abused in government run Indian schools. Native land is held in trust by the United States Government and comprises only 2% of what once was entirely shared lands.
I wonder what our country would have been like today had the Native people emerged as the rulers. Would our air be clean, our rivers clear, our animal species thriving? Would Americans instead be humble, communal, and better connected to the earth?
Native people are still battling for their most basic rights to their lakes, rivers, and ancestral land. Until President Biden intervened, thousands of protestors couldn’t stop the construction of the Dakota pipeline on designated Sioux territory. According to the Census Bureau, poverty among Native Americans is the highest of all minority groups. Today one in three Native People live in poverty, with a median Income of only $23,000 per year. More than 1.5 million American and Alaskan Native Women have experienced violence. Within the past forty years, 2,300 Native women have vanished, 60% are homicides.
I distinctly remember celebrating Thanksgiving in the third grade, half my class dressed as Indians while the other half dressed as Pilgrims. We brought traditional dishes from home to share. The math lesson on fractions was postponed so we could re-enact that first Thanksgiving. It was a bountiful feast and I recall the feeling of joy, unity, and victory.
Knowing now what that early triumph of European colonizers meant for the Native people, I am wondering how I reconcile these two very different narratives of triumph and tragedy? In the past, our family gathered around the Thanksgiving table with roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and pumpkin pie. The table, in my living room, in my home where the bank mortgage and government deed identify me as the owner, sits on the very same land that for hundreds of years was home to the people of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. I wonder, can genocide be reconciled?
How do we resolve the contradiction in history, the real loss and suffering of Native people, with our own long-held family traditions? How can we choke down another bite of turkey, the symbol of bounty and abundance, while our Native people, our acknowledged “friends and saviors,” are still living on reservations in third world conditions?
I’m not sure. I’ve found the truth is always the best place to begin, again.
Angela Engel, of Littleton, is author of “Seeds of Tomorrow” and “Graffiti In Eden.” She is the founder of the Uniting4Kids non-profit education advocacy organization.
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