As we return from Thanksgiving feasts and our families, we may remember the holiday as a few days of rest, relaxation, and appreciation for all of our blessings. However, when contemplating the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday and its history, it’s time that we look past the modern traditions and the classic story of Native Americans and white settlers harmoniously coming together to celebrate a good harvest after that cold winter in 1621, and open our eyes to where the descendants of those white settlers and Native Americans are today.
Aaron Huey, a photographer for National Geographic magazine, wrote an article for the August issue about the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, near Wounded Knee Creek. (Watch his Ted Talk here.) Pine Ridge and Rosebud, the two Sioux reservations in South Dakota, have some of the country’s poorest living situations, with a per-capita income of $7,000 a year (less than one-sixth the national average), mass unemployment, an average life expectancy of 50 years, and the highest suicide rate in the western hemisphere.
The Sioux and the United States have a long history of broken treaties. Their once expansive territory in the west has been significantly diminished. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Oglala the Black Hills, land that holds immense spiritual importance to the tribe. However, when gold was discovered there in 1874, this treaty was quickly broken as prospectors came in droves to the area, and the United States seized the land. The Sioux fought this seizure for over a century, and in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court finally offered the Sioux $17.5 million with 103 years worth of interest, totaling $106 million. However, the Sioux refused the payment, stating that the Black Hills would never be for sale. The Black Hills are currently home to the popular tourist attraction, Mount Rushmore.
So, what about those Native Americans that first welcomed the white settlers to this land? The Wampanoag tribe, who ate that first Thanksgiving meal with the Pilgrims so long ago, was nearly decimated in three years from diseases that the white settlers brought with them. By 1675, after bouts of diseases brought by the Pilgrims and Puritans, as well as an encounter known as King Phillip’s War, only 400 Wampanoag people remained, out of an estimated original 12,000. Many of these survivors were sold into slavery in the West Indies. The last native speakers of their language died over a century ago, although since 1993 the tribe has been working on a language revival project. Only one federally recognized Wampanoag tribe has reservation land.
The United Nations has called for the United States to restore some land to Native American tribes in order to combat the systematic oppression of Native Americans in the US, including the Black Hills. James Anaya, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, stated after his visit to many indigenous communities across the United States, “It is clear that this history does not just blemish the past, but translates into present day disadvantage for indigenous peoples in the country.”
While the United States government continues to largely sidestep and ignore this issue of indigenous land rights, Native Americans continue to experience insulting racial discrimination. Sports team mascots such as the “Braves” and the “Redskins” are blatant racial slurs and are depicted by caricatures of Native Americans as imagined by the white American. People continue to don these caricature-like costumes for Halloween, and fraternities have parties like the “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos” party that made news earlier this month.
It seems that as a society as a whole, we have a long way to go in regards to honoring and respecting the people that were for such a long time custodians of the land where we now live, who have as a people undergone inordinate suffering at the hands of many of our ancestors, and many of whom continue to suffer today. So each Thanksgiving, let’s not focus on honoring the Pilgrims who took this land for us, but let’s remember the people that they took it from, many of whom still live, overlooked, unheard and often impoverished, among us today.