COLUMBIA — Many Native Americans see Thanksgiving as just another day of giving thanks.
Dona McKinney, a grant writer for Lincoln University, is Ioway and Omaha. She said that in her culture, people give thanks every day. Most traditional prayers begin with giving thanks to the creator.
“We don’t sit down and say we’re thankful for this," McKinney said. "It’s something we do daily.”
After falling ill and losing her job last winter, McKinney held a ceremony to show her gratitude when she regained her health and found a new job.
To McKinney, Thanksgiving Day is a good opportunity to get together with her large extended family. They enjoy the holiday by having a feast like many other people in the country. After the meal, several family members gather in front of the TV and watch football, she said.
Don Hart owns Best of the West, a Native American art and jewelry store in Columbia. He is a member of the Northern Cherokee of Missouri. Hart views Thanksgiving as a feast day on which he thanks the creator for all the things that have been given to him and his family throughout the year. He also eats mostly the “regular” Thanksgiving foods, but his family includes some Native American specialties such as fried bread as well.
For Eric Lancaster, an MU senior and member of the Northern Cherokee Nation of the Old Louisiana Territory, Thanksgiving provides a chance for his family to reflect on their heritage. Of Cherokee, Irish and Scottish ancestry, he said he is not thankful for what happened in history but remembers the first Thanksgiving as a moment when both groups of ancestors – white and Native American – were peaceful with each other.
Rather than be upset about the past, Lancaster is grateful that he lives in a time where communities live together mostly in peace.
“We remember not to be angry for what’s done to us, but to be grateful with what we could have,” Lancaster said.
“We don't sit around and have hard feelings about it,” McKinney echoed.
Lancaster said that people with mixed-blood "have a harder time coming to terms with how things have come."
"You feel guilty for things your white ancestors have done. It's harder to accept what has happened."
McKinney doesn’t think that the holiday should be particular to Native Americans. “It’s not our holiday,” McKinney said.
Hart, however, said he thinks that Native Americans are not given enough credit.
“Everybody seems to forget that it’s about the givingness and charity of the American Indians,” Hart said. “Had it not been for American Indians, there wouldn’t be a Thanksgiving. Had they not opened up their arms on that day, I doubt the settlers would have made it.”
LuAnne Roth, a doctoral candidate in the MU English department, agreed that the typical version of the Thanksgiving story is often misrepresented. She is writing her dissertation about the representation of Thanksgiving in the media.
Roth was concerned when her son came home one day after Thanksgiving dressed in a brown grocery bag, picked up a feather and said, “I am a Native American,” in a way that suggested intellectual inferiority.
Even though Roth said that her son's school didn’t intentionally teach these stereotypes, whatever is taught often has an opposite effect since it’s mostly taught from the eyes of the colonists.
Her point mirrors the words of McKinney. "History is written by the victors," McKinney said. "There will always be that slant.”
Roth said Thanksgiving is a missed opportunity for teachers to teach about different points of view. In discussions on American colonization, she said it might be more important to instead ask: "Should we? Is it our right to do that?"
She said she believes that the story of the "first Thanksgiving” was based on a letter that one of the Pilgrims sent to England to recruit more settlers after losing many members during the winter. According to her, it was possibly skewed to persuade people to come.
Roth said that a day of Thanksgiving was declared when the Pilgrims had rain, a good harvest or when things went well with the Native Americans. For example, Pilgrims also declared Thanksgiving after defeating Native Americans in battle or when a Native American village was decimated by disease and the Europeans could move in, she added.
Through her son, Roth has seen how Thanksgiving is taught in schools — having kids dress up as Pilgrims and natives. She also said that November is the month where schools start paying attention to Native Americans.
“We should teach the truth about (Thanksgiving) … and teach about Native Americans year round,” Roth said.
Eric Lancaster agreed that it's important to depict the subjects honestly. He said that teachers should not underestimate the ability of their students to understand the differences between each community.
“We don’t have to hurt one group or another. … White students are not going to have their feelings hurt if you tell them the truth," Lancaster said. "They’ll respect it more and appreciate more what they have now.”
When children dress up as Native Americans, he said he doesn't get upset. “Imitation is the best form of flattery, as long as it is well taught.”
However, Lancaster encouraged schools to teach the crafts and decorum correctly — refraining, for instance, from using glitter or pink feathers.
Lancaster will still celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that many Americans do — turkey, pumpkin pie and corn at grandma’s house.
But, he added, “if there is one holiday that we don’t celebrate, it’s probably Columbus Day."