Fall in the U.S. is rife with opportunity for cultural appropriation and white-washed versions of history that have become ubiquitous with several holidays that mark time in this semester. Many groups have worked to shift perspectives about what is appropriate for Halloween with “Cultures are not costumes” campaigns in recent years.
Additionally, clips of a high school math teacher in California mocking Native American culture by chanting and dancing around her classroom while wearing a mock feather headdress was recently spread. This made its way to social media feeds because a Native American student in the class began filming out of concern and posted on their Instagram account later to share what he had to endure at school that day.
While that may seem particularly out of place in a high school math class, education institutions have a long history of wildly inaccurate re-tellings of a “first Thanksgiving” coupled with problematic activities and performances.
What many may not realize is that November is also Native American History Month. The origins are similar to other heritage celebrations with an additional irony in timing. The week was announced by President Ronald Reagan as November 23-30 in 1986 and the heritage month has existed every year since 1995.
Perhaps well-intentioned as a way to include Indigenous experience during Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag tribe has been public about the deep harm the longstanding dominant narrative about their encounters with the Pilgrims has caused. The Native perspective about the violent history of conflict and colonization is largely erased from view.
In 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) called for a National Day of Mourning for Native Americans on the Thanksgiving Thursday. This has been observed by the organization at Cole’s Hill, near Plymouth Rock ever since. A plaque at the site reads, “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands and the relentless assault on their cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today.”
As we look forward to the brief Thanksgiving break, it is important to consider the ways we can ensure our gatherings and celebrations do not further contribute to the erasure of Native American and Indigenous history.
For more ways to honor Native American History Month:
- learn about which Indigenous lands you reside on
- Read about The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 and The American Indian Religious Freedom Act
- Spread awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic
- Watch Standing Bear’s Footsteps | The story of an Indian chief who redefined what it means to be an American.
- Support Native makers and artists
This article was written by Jennifer Sandoval, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Assistant Director of Inclusive Culture. She can be contacted at Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org. Edited by Iulia Popescu.
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