Native Americans and Thanksgiving: Truth-Teller Tribute

Emily Washines

Native Americans and Thanksgiving, Truth-Teller Tribute, by Emily Washines, Native Friends


Yes, your turkey needs to get prepared, but let’s carve some time for the Native American perspective.

Some Native American families do not celebrate Thanksgiving, while some eat with their families. There is variation among the 562 federally recognized tribes.  

Local example: The Yakama tribal casino gives turkeys away to some and has a display. The tribe also closes for Thanksgiving holiday and the day after in recognition of Native American Day. For some, it is convenience that compels us to come together. Well, we have a day off, so let’s get together and eat.

Looking at these dynamics, it might be confusing for others to figure out.

Dual Meaning of Thanksgiving

Some make the decision to continue shielding ourselves and our kids from the Native American history. “When they are older,” some say as they put a pilgrim and Native figure in front of them to color. Some, listen to A Tribe Called Red - Burn Your Village to the Ground or regard the day as a National Day of Mourning. For many tribal members, this is a complicated history. Especially for tribes on the east coast. A Huffington Post article interviews Cedric Cromwell, of the Wampanoag, “Cromwell’s perspective illustrates the dual meaning that Thanksgiving holds for some Native Americans. The day is both a chance to ceremoniously express gratitude — a practice that existed in Native American culture before the Pilgrims arrived — and an opportunity to highlight the challenges the community faces today.”

Can more Americans reach a place that we recognize the history and enjoy some turkey?

For many Natives, we don’t get to decide when our kids learn about our differences. After I left a presentation, my 6-year-old said.  

“Sorry mom, we were going to visit, but we couldn’t because we are brown and might get hurt.”

That day, my efforts to shield her from the potential dangers based on her ethnicity were not enough. I hugged her as I reassured her we are okay. I had to put on a brave face (the real one, not the mascot). My stomach was in knots, we talked to them briefly about Charlottesville.

It’s been three months since she’s said that. I have been reflecting on how I got an opportunity to share a Yakama War film and poetry, that abruptly ended after there were some tensions outside. “The protests come a day after a car driven by a purported white supremacist attending a white-supremacist “Tiki Torch” rally in Charlottesville plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one person” (Seattle Times).   

The first thing I did was make sure my husband and our 3 kids stopped en route. We agreed to meet somewhere. I was trying to leave the Seattle parking lot and after a few minutes of waiting for someone to pay - he turned around and asked me for help. I helped him figure it out.

It’s only now, thinking back, I recall he was Caucasian. I go through a memory scrapbook to recall kind things we do for one another. We try to rebuild a kind world with our children by teaching them to be helpful toward others. We also try to approach these topics with people we know and people we don’t know.


The fact that I have embarked on a history project seeking historic enemies -- is timely. People ask why. There are many reasons. One includes perspective sharing as author and professor Brené Brown explains in her Facebook Live video, “The stories we don’t own, own us. It’s painful, but it’s not as painful as spending our lives running from our story.” and “Part of this process is understanding and hearing another side.” While I continue to learn and share about Black Lives Matter, I also think about how owning our collective story applies to Natives.

Conversations about Natives

We must be attentive to the language and images of Natives. If there is dehumanizing language, such as “Natives don’t pay taxes, don’t pay for college or are blood-thirsty,” then we need to either request that language be fixed or disengage from the conversation.

Photos that dehumanize Native Women

*Trigger Warning: Violence against women (graphic image in the link)

There’s a graphic photo shared on November 17th by Nicki Minaj. In the article, Nicki Minaj Pocahontas is not a sex symbol, Journalist Abaki Beck (Blackfeet) said, “When Minaj posed for Paper Magazine, she consented to this representation. Pocahontas—and millions of other Native American women and girls—did not. These sexualized representations are not benign: We cannot end violence against Native women and girls if it’s continually normalized.”

Books that dehumanize

In terms of books, it’s difficult to read about how they characterize Natives. In the Yakama War, there are many dehumanizing terms used to describe Natives in history. The issue is that non-Native people continue to publish history books using this language.

At some point, it’s hard to take in and transition. Sometimes I cry as I reflect on my kids’ beautiful smiles and think some point in history someone did not want them to exist. Thinking of the statistics Natives face, we have to be vocal about how Natives are represented.

We also need to take time to process. It is important to enjoy everyday moments, practice self-care, and make time for family. The same 6-year-old, was recently praised by Natives and non-Natives dressed in her regalia. We were at our local Indie bookstore for a book signing by Crazy Horse’s great-grandchildren. She and her sister’s braids flap in the night as they excitedly hold a book full of knowledge of a Native warrior not forgotten.  

With tribes past, present and future we have so many conversation pathways, it would be difficult for me to summarize. But then I thought, what if we can acknowledge the people that are learning and sharing the Native perspective? Truth-teller Tribute is a poem, also a part of the collection in my upcoming poetry e-book. I also made a short video.

I am thankful for truth-tellers. Will you join me in being thankful?

More importantly, will you be one?  

Truth Teller Tribute

We have Native Languages along with English
Like dances - sometimes we explain
Like ceremonies - sometimes we don't
A naxsh here
Shiyax maytski there
It might cause others to stare
Like when the Native
Puts knowledge out there
And these ancient traditions
Surround us like a gathering
It might cause others to stare
Words on paper
People in crowds
Sometimes, we are mistaken for others
So hidden among the numbers
Natives have different features
Some blend with our place names
It's okay, tell us your history
From yesterday or ancient times
Background, family, and pride
We will listen to that
Gathering, hunting, or fishing story
Especially what made grandpa laugh
But even that time auntie was scared
Looking across the river at the men
Following her kids in their crosshairs
Telling these stories
Might cause others to stare
Let's put this truth out there
One by one
Or in groups side-by-side
Maybe it will push others past stares
It might cause them to care



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Native Americans and Thanksgiving: Truth Teller Tribute, by Emily Washines, Native Friends

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