This Thanksgiving, we are grateful for our Native American communities

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This Thanksgiving all of us at Running Strong for American Indian Youth®, are wishing all of our supporters, our Native American partners, and all Native American children, families and elders everywhere throughout Indian Country especially, a happy – and safe – holiday season.

While, of course, 2020 has been a challenging year for all Americans (and all people around the world for that matter), with far too many of our fellow citizens – Native and non-Native alike – experiencing the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic whether they have lost loved ones due to the coronavirus, or survived it themselves.

But the fact remains, despite the loss and sadness, there is still much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day.

We all have reason to be thankful that promising new vaccines are on the horizon with the expected light at the end of this long dark tunnel to be by mid-2021 when all Americans will have access to the vaccines which will prevent the contraction and spread of the virus, and hopefully, eventually, its demise.

As there have been many stories written and myths passed down for generations about the “first Thanksgiving” where pilgrims and Native Americans are said to have sat down together around a table in peace and harmony to enjoy a feast, we have long wondered do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today?

So we went to the source, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which published an article by Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) in 2016 addressing that very question who recalled his earliest memories of elementary school when he was asked to bring a brown paper sack to be decorated and worn as part of an “Indian” costume to celebrate Thanksgiving.

“The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture,” wrote Zotigh, a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery, an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.

“The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples.”

In sum, Zotigh wrote:

“Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.”

In 2017, Indian Country Today reported “What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale,” that summed up what children have been and are still being taught in schools as “it was made up.”

But regardless of what happened at that mythological first Thanksgiving, and what Americans are grown up believing, the reality of today is that because of the supporters of Running Strong American Indian Youth® on this Thanksgiving Day, November 26, thousands of children and families will be grateful for the turkey dinner with all the dressings they will enjoy – and for that we will be eternally thankful!

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