What Standing Rock Taught Me About Thanksgiving

This year for Thanksgiving, instead of participating in the annual holiday ritual of gorging on food 'til I'm comatose, I traveled with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship to Standing Rock — where people are standing up against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a crude oil pipeline which the Lakota, one of the groups indigenous to the region, fear may contaminate their water supply and land. Like so many others, I was struck by the courage of indigenous groups fighting to protect their water and way of life, and felt compelled to do what I could to be in solidarity with their struggle.

As I prepared to go to Standing Rock, though, it struck me that this trip would also present an opportunity to learn and connect more deeply with the holiday. I've always liked the overeating part of Thanksgiving (drinking and napping come in a close second and third), but I've never been able to shake the feeling that — beyond gastrointestinal pleasures — Thanksgiving rang hollow. And I think that a big part of that is the Thanksgiving story we learn in school.

When I was in second grade, the teachers in my predominately-white school designed an immersive Thanksgiving educational curriculum. Because this was the '90s and cultural appropriation was very much in vogue, they had each homeroom dress up as a different Native American tribe. (Oblivious to the irony, they chose the Seneca, Onondaga and Mohawk — people that lived in the area I grew up in before they were removed by our forefathers.)

We made our own wampum belts from plastic beads and had a Native American gathering where we told stories from our respective "tribes," and sang traditional songs. Naturally, we also described how we helped the pilgrims learn how to grow food, delivering a grand retelling of the first Thanksgiving. It looks pretty horrifying in hindsight, but what I learned wasn't much different from how I've heard my friends describe their elementary school Thanksgivings. Ultimately, it's a pretty shallow image — less an exercise in true gratitude than an excuse to dress kids up "cute."


I had an inkling that the indigenous people I would meet at Standing Rock might see this tradition rather differently. And I was not wrong. What's interesting, though, is that few disagreed with the central premise of that first Thanksgiving event. As Brian John, a 65-year-old Ojibwe man, explained to Bustle, "I think the Pilgrims were a group of people that were in a bad way at that particular time and the local indigenous people felt sorry for them, and went to take care of them." Likewise, Ramón Reyes — who traces his lineage to the Incan, Mayan, Kickapoo and Anishinaabe people — concurred: "When the Europeans first came, we opened our arms and welcomed them. We taught them how to hunt, how to survive on our continent."

However, every person I spoke to expressed outrage that while these details may be true, they propagate a far greater lie when considered in isolation. As one Oglala man succinctly stated, "There was no Thanksgiving for us, only 'Thankstaking.'" And this truth is supported by even a cursory glance at US–Indigenous history. To pretend that the Thanksgiving story is emblematic of this relationship is absurd.

Reyes put it bluntly:

"History teaches you that they came here, and the natives welcomed them. Everybody's happy, they learn a bunch of cool new skills, the natives got a bunch of shiny beads and blankets. It's happy. 'Sit down man, Thanksgiving dinner. A turkey, and mashed potatoes and gravy and green bean casserole. Everybody had cranberry sauce. Everybody sat around the table and said what they are thankful for.' The whole thing is the biggest crock of shit that I've ever heard in my life."

Ramón Reyes

Indeed, the temerity of teaching this story in isolation from the broader context of Native American history is staggering. And for many kids, it is taught in isolation. I didn't learn about the Trail of Tears, or any of the horrifying list of native massacres, until I was much older. And, even then, those unpleasant details tended to be glossed over — they certainly weren't the subject of elaborate reenactments at school.

This educational imbalance creates a warped perspective through which American children learn about indigenous history. Several native people I spoke to described the pain and frustration of sitting in predominately non-native classrooms, being taught the Thanksgiving story. Wicahpi, a Lakota man who grew up in New York City, said, "Alone, my family didn't celebrate Thanksgiving. In school, it was always brought up. They always decorated the classroom for Thanksgiving. But I would sit out, and say, 'I don't want to participate in this,' because my family spoke to me about what really happened." He isn't surprised by the skewed perspective, noting grimly, "The history was written by those who oppressed us, so of course they're going to rewrite history."

Undoubtedly, teaching about the historical abuse of indigenous people is painful. But it's also critically important as Tristen, a Payómkawichum 5th grade teacher, observed:

"The truth is hard to hear, but we learn about the Holocaust, we learn about Japanese internment camps, we learn about slavery. Nobody holds back about telling the truth about those things that happen, so why can't we talk about the native American genocide that happened and that is continually happening. You see it here. They're trying to poison our water and land, and take away our culture. People are getting tear gassed and shot for praying."

From Left: Tristen, Wicahpi, Mato

Indigenous abuse is not confined to the pages of history books. The Dakota Access Pipeline wasn't even originally supposed to travel alongside this land. The pipeline was originally routed near Bismarck — a city that is 92 percent white — but that plan was scrapped due to concerns of contamination. Risks deemed unacceptable for a white population, however, seem to have been deemed tolerable for a native one. (According to ABC News, The North Dakota Public Service Commission (PSC) denied these allegations, saying that the Bismarck route proposal was not submitted to the agency due to permit issues.)

The night before I arrived at Standing Rock, authorities allegedly sprayed people engaging in peaceful water protection with hoses in sub-freezing temperatures, leaving dozens at risk of hypothermia (a spokesperson for the sheriff's department claims that the police were attempting to put out fires on the bridge.). Another woman may lose her arm from injuries her father and observers claim she sustained when she was hit by a concussion grenade (a spokesperson for the police department told the Los Angeles Times that her injuries were not caused by any form of police interaction). Elders have alleged that authorities pepper-sprayed them as they prayed.

Given the historic and ongoing discrimination faced by many native people, it's perhaps unsurprising that Reyes ultimately concluded:

"There was no big potluck, and no party. What was going on was rape, murder. Villages were being burnt. Animals were being slaughtered and not used properly. And then they change the history and make it pretty, so kids can make flowers and hand-cut turkeys. I have no room for Thanksgiving in my heart."

Which begs the question: why do we still celebrate with glorified images portraying harmony between colonists and the indigenous people they colonized? This story sanitizes painful history, erasing past and present faults. We desperately need a new Thanksgiving story, one that substitutes true harmony and equality in place of the saccharine lies of pilgrims and Indians.

If we're looking for stories to choose from, we could do far worse than to look to Standing Rock. Inspired by indigenous leadership, the camp has become a flashpoint for people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds — united against corporate greed and wanton disregard for our environment. We can find a new Thanksgiving story in Ramón's powerful words:

"I don't want people to feel sorry for Native Americans. I want you to understand. We as a native people will never go away. Our roots run deep in the lands that we come from. When we die, we go right back into our Earth and she holds us again. And our children carry the stories of our forefathers. That's why I'm here at Standing Rock in November, around Thanksgiving time. Because I believe in true unity, I believe in true humanity."

Image Credits: Getty Images (1), Benjamin Perry