For many Native
Americans, the Covid toll and the reckoning over racial inequity
make this high time to re-examine the holiday, and a cruel history.
Dana Buckles, whose Native
name is White Dog, bowed his head in prayer before a buffalo
hunt in early November in Montana, a form of thanksgiving.Credit...Tailyr
Irvine for The New York Times
FORT PECK INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. On a frigid November
morning inside a tractor barn in northeast Montana, 10 members of
the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes joined in song to bless a thirty-aught-six
hunting rifle, and to lift up the spirit of a buffalo they were
preparing to kill. One man played a painted hand drum. Others passed
around burning sage.
The hunt that followed took place on Turtle
Mound Buffalo Ranch, 27,000 acres of rolling pasture on the
Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Every stage of the hunt was marked by a ceremony to give thanks
for a buffalo that descends from animals killed to near-extinction
by white settlers in the late 19th century.
The mass killing was part of a government-approved effort to seize
land from Native Americans who depended on the animal to survive.
The brutality of settlers' expansion into the Great Plains and American
West has been drastically underplayed in popular myths about the
founding and growth of the United States.
Arguably the best-known of those myths is the story of the first
Thanksgiving, a holiday Robert Magnan, who led the buffalo hunt
at Fort Peck, does not observe. "Thanksgiving is kind of like Columbus
Day for Native people," he said. "Why would we celebrate people
who tried to destroy us?"
Buffalo grazing along
a hill on the Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch. They are part of
a long-term effort to return bison to the lands they once
roamed.Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
It is now widely accepted that the story of a friendship-sealing
repast between white colonists and Native Americans is inaccurate.
the tale have become as reliable an annual media ritual as recipes
But this year should be different, say Native American leaders,
scholars and teachers.
The holiday arrives in the midst of a national reckoning over race,
and a global pandemic that has landed with particular force on marginalized
communities of color. The crises have fueled an intense re-examination
of the roots of persistent inequities in American life.
This Thanksgiving also comes on the heels of an election in which
110 American Indian and Alaska Native candidates ran for office,
according to the National Congress
of American Indians, and on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower
LaDuke, the Native American activist
and writer who ran for vice president in 1996 and 2000 as Ralph
Nader's running mate, believes that the country is primed to re-envision
Thanksgiving as an occasion to come to terms with the cruelty Native
Americans have experienced throughout history.
"I've seen a growing awareness, a wake-up, to the systemic oppression
of people of color," said Ms. LaDuke, an enrolled member of the
White Earth Ojibwe Nation.
"There is a movement toward justice for Native people. People want
Thanksgiving, of course, is a time for listening, a welcome opportunity
for prayer, reflection and looking back, and many Indigenous people
celebrate it in their own way. But the problem with its origin story,
Ms. LaDuke and others say, goes beyond misrepresentations about
what was served on Cape Cod in 1621. (There is no evidence that
turkey was on the menu, and pie couldn't have been, because there
was no flour or butter available for crust.)
Linda Coombs is a Wampanoag historian and a member of the Wampanoag
Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Wampanoag
people attended the harvest ceremony that later became known as
the first Thanksgiving.
"There was an event that happened in 1621," Ms. Coombs said. "But
the whole story about what occurred on that first Thanksgiving was
a myth created to make white people feel comfortable."
The caricature of friendly Indians handing over food, knowledge
and land to kindhearted Pilgrims was reinforced for generations
by school curriculums, holiday pageants and children's books. These
stories were among the few appearances made by Native Americans
in popular historical narratives, effectively erasing history-altering
crimes, like the killing of tens of millions of buffalo, from the
country's consciousness. That massacre led to the mass starvation
of Indigenous people.
"Erasure isn't taking down a conquistador statue," said Ms. LaDuke,
61. "Erasure is when you don't even know the name of the people
who own the land where you live."
Work to reverse this historical amnesia has spanned decades. The
National Day of Mourning dates
back to 1970, established on Thanksgiving by activists in New England
to recognize the suffering of Native Americans. Fourteen states
and the District of Columbia now celebrate Indigenous
Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day, recasting a holiday that
honored an explorer who presided over the enslaving
and killing of Indigenous people.
Dana Thompson and her partner, Sean
Sherman, an award-winning chef, are co-owners of the Sioux
Chef, an organization in the Twin Cities devoted to revitalizing
Native American cuisine. In the period between Indigenous People's
Day and Thanksgiving, she said she is "inundated with people who
might have some awareness with the pain over the characterizations
that comes with this time."
She urges anyone who asks to focus on "the true Indigenous wisdom
that is behind the philosophy of Thanksgiving it's about
not taking, but about giving back."
Hi?ilei Julia Hobart,
an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of
Texas at Austin, in front of the Treaty Oak, in Austin. The
tree is the last of the Council Oaks, a grove that was a sacred
meeting place for Comanche and Tonkawa tribes.Credit...Jessica
Attie for The New York Times
Today, it's more common than it once was for stories by and about
Native Americans to find mainstream audiences. Tommy
Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne
and Arapaho Nations of Oklahoma, and David
Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota
Nation, are two of the most critically acclaimed young novelists
These developments follow years in which Native American history
and culture gradually became more widely taught, in schools and
Jaakola, 52, a member of the Fond
du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, recalls the catharsis
she felt as a young woman watching the movie "Addams
Family Values," a dark comedy released in 1993.
In one scene,
the Wednesday character, cast as Pocahontas in a children's Thanksgiving
play, goes off script to take violent revenge on the Pilgrims. "You
have taken the land which is rightfully ours," she calmly seethes.
"Years from now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes
on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs."
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, other people get it, too,'" said Ms.
Jaakola, a musician and teacher who was elected
this month to the City Council in Cloquet, Minn. "They realize
how ridiculous the whole image of Thanksgiving is."
Christian Taylor-Johnson, 28, is a descendant of the Leech
Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota, and attended Leech
Lake Tribal College. He said the education he received wasn't available
to older relatives, who were forced to assimilate and prohibited
from speaking their native language.
"I actually speak more Ojibwe than either of my parents," Mr. Taylor-Johnson
Mr. Taylor-Johnson said his family's Thanksgiving traditionally
features dishes like turkey, wild rice, fry bread and green bean
casserole, his personal favorite. In recent years, he has encouraged
family members to use the holiday to acknowledge the plight of their
"Last year, we called it Takesgiving," he said.
Cross-generational education also occurs in non-Native American
households. Alice Julier, director of the Center
for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation at Chatham
University, in Pittsburgh, has incorporated Native American history
in her teaching for nearly 30 years.
She said there's a term used in academic circles to describe what
happens when students like hers bring new knowledge home for the
holiday: the Thanksgiving massacre.
"You come home armed with this information about how the world
works," Dr. Julier said, "and then you come back to your professors
and say, 'Well, that didn't go well.'"
Indigenous studies is growing increasingly popular in academia,
particularly among scholars whose work sits, as Dr. Julier's does,
at the intersection of food, race, class and gender.
Hi?ilei Julia Hobart, an
assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at
Austin, said current events allow students to see more clearly the
shared legacies of African-Americans, many of whose enslaved ancestors
were forced to work land stolen from Native Americans, whose agricultural
know-how was also co-opted.
"I always start with histories of dispossession as a way of contextualizing
why food sovereignty has become such an urgent contemporary project,"
said Dr. Hobart, 39, a Kanaka Maoli from Hawaii who has a Ph.D.
in food studies. "Now we have this understanding about the fragility
of our food system that has come in the wake of the pandemic."
She added that frontline food workers are disproportionately exposed
to the virus, and that "those workers are mostly Black and brown."
For most of her professional life, LeAnn Littlewolf didn't give
much thought to how past injustices affected the people she serves
as an educator and activist. That changed after she attended the
Food Sovereignty Summit last year in Green Bay, Wis.
"When I got back from the conference, I thought about how much land
we used to have access to, and how much food we used to produce,"
said Ms. Littlewolf, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. "And
I got so angry."
Ms. Littlewolf has since led the American
Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, Minn., where
she serves as the economic development director, to build a rooftop
garden at its headquarters and buy a former corner grocery. The
group is in the process of converting the space into Niiwin
Indigenous Foods Market, which will feature food from Native
American producers on its shelves and on a deli menu.
"Native people haven't had access to retail space," said Ms. Littlewolf,
47. "We want our people to feed our people."
Robert Magnan, director
of the Fort Peck Tribe's fish and game department, as well
as its buffalo program, searched for buffalo from the cab
of his truck. Credit...Tailyr Irvine for The New York Times
That notion was part of what compelled Mr. Magnan, who led the
hunt at Fort Peck, to help spearhead a long-term effort to restore
buffalo to tribal lands across the United States and into Canada.
The project began more than 20 years ago. The buffalo, transported
from Yellowstone National Park, descend from the few that survived
slaughter that, by the late 1800s, had reduced the population
from more than 30 million to a few hundred. The first buffalo arrived
at Fort Peck from Yellowstone in 2012.
"Native people feel that buffalo are our four-legged relatives,"
said Mr. Magnan, 66. "By getting genetically pure buffalo, we're
getting our oldest ancestors back to us. They were here back before
the United States was even a country."
Mr. Magnan is director of the Fort Peck Tribes' fish and game department,
as well as its buffalo program. He oversees two herds. Revenue from
the 250-head "business" herd, raised through the sale of buffalo
and fees charged to hunters, is used to maintain the 350-head "cultural"
herd, which the tribe plans to grow as part of its restoration effort.
The cultural herd passes through a quarantine system to prevent
the spread of brucellosis, a disease feared by cattle ranchers.
Fifty-five bulls graduated from the quarantine in July, and were
distributed to 16 tribes in nine states.
"The ones that went to Alaska we dubbed Operation Buffalo Wings,"
said Mr. Magnan, "because they rode on a plane from Seattle to Anchorage."
Fort Peck tribal members enter a lottery for the right to hunt
one buffalo from the cultural herd, which needs to be culled in
order to keep it at the 350 head that the land will support; during
this hunting season, from Sept. 15 to Dec. 20, Mr. Magnan leads
at least one hunt every day. One of the primary benefits of the
buffalo program is that it allows the Fort Peck community to feed
"I told our tribal council, 'What would ever happen if the government
went bankrupt, or they cut these social programs, how would we feed
our people?'" Mr. Mangan said. "Going back to being with the buffalo
again would be one way."
After blessing the rifle, Mr. Magnan led a convoy of four-by-four
trucks over snow-covered hills in search of a buffalo to kill. He
rode with Dana Buckles, whose Native name is White Dog. Mr. Buckles
was asked by the lottery-winner, Larry Beauchamp, a tribal elder,
to shoot the buffalo on his behalf.
Robert White laid his
hand on the head of the buffalo, just after it was shot.Credit...Tailyr
Irvine for The New York Times
The convoy stopped at the top of a hill overlooking dozens of grazing
buffalo. The crack of the rifle was followed by a loud yelp. The
men quickly drove down a steep incline to the fallen 1,400-pound
Mr. Beauchamp tucked sage grass into the buffalo's mouth and between
its toes, as Mr. Buckles and his stepson, Roger White Jr. (Little
Eagle), sang a song of thanks.
After loading the buffalo onto the back of a truck and driving
it to a nearby hayfield, Mr. Magnan gutted it with a small knife
and an electric saw. With impressive speed, he harvested the prized
organs, some of which were placed in an empty Huggies diaper box.
They, and the buffalo meat, will feed Mr. Beauchamp's extended family
through the winter.
"They say when Native people hunt buffalo, the coyotes starve,"
said Mr. Magnan, gesturing to the relatively small pile of innards
the group was leaving behind.
In another expression of ceremonial thanksgiving, Mr. Buckles and
Mr. White ate pieces of the buffalo's liver, still warm. Mr. White's
brother, Robert, let loose a war whoop as they chewed. In the cold
morning air, it sounded like a cheer.
Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes
The Fort Peck Reservation is home to two separate American Indian
Nations, each composed of numerous bands and divisions.
Our mission is to create awareness and support for Native
environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political
resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities. Honor
the Earth develops these resources by using music, the arts, the
media, and Indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint
dependency on the Earth and be a voice for those not heard.