One of my earliest memories of celebrating Thanksgiving in elementary school is making feathered headbands out of construction paper to wear as headdresses for my school’s annual tradition of dressing up as pilgrims and “Indians” for Thanksgiving week.
In retrospect, it’s ridiculous to think this even took place. The intent was to teach students about the history of Thanksgiving, yet the execution was way off. Similar to my experience, our country’s understanding of Native Americans is limited, one-sided and oftentimes blatantly wrong.
It is a necessity that we begin to better understand Native American’s history because it is a part of our country’s history. November is Native American Heritage Month, which means there’s no better time to start learning than now. I decided to quash some common misconceptions and stereotypes that still exist about Native Americans today.
“Native American” is not one culture.
In the United States, there are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Native Americans have different beliefs, speak different languages and are culturally diverse from each other. It’s important we recognize them as individual people that belong to a variety of belief systems and cultural practices, not as one singular identity.
Native Americans do not get a “free ride” from the government.
Despite some misconceptions, Native Americans do not receive assistance checks simply for being Native. Many Native Americans are veterans or have disabilities and receive the appropriate government assistance just like every veteran or person with a disability would. Much of the governmental aid goes to providing food and energy assistance to reservations, due to the loss of land and natural food resources, according to the Partnership with Native Americans. Any other additional assistance that Native Americans do receive is to combat the economic hardship that Native communities disproportionately experience.
Native Americans did not feast with the pilgrims on Thanksgiving and then live happily ever after.
Although a feast did occur with the Plymouth pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe, it didn’t go down exactly as history books depict it. The pilgrim colonists didn’t necessarily invite the Wampanoag tribe to a feast. Native Americans had already settled many years prior to the pilgrims coming to America. A year prior to the “Thanksgiving” feast, pilgrims arrived severely unprepared for the winter and raided food from Native American graves and storehouses, unlike the peaceful feast most of us associate with Thanksgiving, according to National Geographic.
Many history books make it seem as if the pilgrims were the ones that afforded Native Americans with food and resources to survive, and after that point, lived in harmony with each other. In fact, it was the other way around. European settlers colonized native land and decimated their communities. If we want to truly understand Native American history in this country, we first have to unwrite the one-sided story that is too often framed as the main narrative. To do this, we have to educate ourselves.
This past week, I had the opportunity to hear actor, comedian and activist Tatanka Means from the Navajo, Oglala Lakota and Omaha Nations speak at Missouri State Student Activities Council event on Nov. 10. Despite Zooming in to speak, Means was funny, charming and amusing, as if he were presenting in-person.
I left the event with a better understanding of Tatanka’s life as a Native American, and I encourage everyone to check out the remaining events for Native American Heritage Month organized by the Multicultural Resource Center at MSU, which can be found on their Instagram.
For those wanting to become more educated about Native Americans, I recommend checking out the following information.
Reclaiming Native Truth is a national project that aims to foster narratives that empower Native Americans and provides a wealth of information and research available for anyone to look into.
Indian Country Today is an online news platform that reports stories about Native Americans, a great resource to check out outside of major news companies.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a pre-columbian Native settlement near the St. Louis area that is free to visit and a great site to experience.
Native American Heritage Month is a great opportunity to spend time learning about Native Americans and their history, but it is important to recognize them during the other eleven months of the year, too.
For much of my life, I grew up with misconstrued understandings of Native American history. A lot of what I learned through my education was wrong or based on stereotypes. After taking the time to break down those generalizations, I was able to better appreciate Native Americans, and I challenge everyone to do the same this Thanksgiving.
Follow Paige Nicewaner on Twitter, @i_am_paiger
Subscribe to The Standard's free weekly newsletter by texting THESTANDARD to 22828.