Thankful For The Truth: An interview With The Co-Founder Of JMU's Native American Student Union
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Politics and Activism

Thankful For The Truth: An interview With The Co-Founder Of JMU's Native American Student Union

JMU student Mahala Gates gives insight on our society's "Thanksgiving" holiday

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Thankful For The Truth: An interview With The Co-Founder Of JMU's Native American Student Union
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What comes to mind when you think about the history of Thanksgiving? Is it this Hallmark card image of the Pilgrims holding hands with the Natives to share a bountiful feast? This image is instilled in many kids across America at very early ages. In elementary school, we are taught that the Pilgrims and the Indians” got together for a day of peace and that the Indians graciously fed the starving white colonists.

But that’s not quite how it all went down.

I got the chance to talk to Mahala Gates, a senior Justice Studies student at JMU who is one of four co-founders of the Native American Student Union (NASU) on campus, to get to the bottom of what the history behind the day really is and why our society carries this skewed version of history.

Mahala described her elementary school experience to me, saying that she was “denied my identity as a kid when I said I was Native”. She said that when she told other students that she was Native, they would reply with, “No Mahala, you are just white”.

“I internalize so much of this as ‘I can’t be this person’”, she told me. “At home and at Powwow I was proud of who I was. At school, I had to cover up.”

Of course, this lack of cultural understanding was even more obvious during the Thanksgiving season. “In elementary school, you are taught that the pilgrims and the Indians were good friends and that they did a lot for each other, when that wasn’t necessarily the case.”, she told me. She described that when her class dressed up for their “thanksgiving feast” that she wore traditional Native attire, while many of her classmates wore “fake feather headbands and Halloween costumes”. Mahala explained to me that “It was frustrating to listen to stuff that wasn’t what you were taught at home.”

Much of what we believe to be the truth about history stems from our early education. But what actually happened on this day we call “Thanksgiving”?

“There are all kinds of different accounts of what happened. But there wasn’t a peaceful relationship (between the Natives and the Pilgrims).” Mahala explained. “The very basis of native relations with white people is that it wasn’t good. They came to steal the land. So, regardless of what is said, the very basis of the relationship was violence.”

According to Susan Bates of the Manataka American Indian Council, the actual history behind Thanksgiving revolves around The Green Corn Festival of the Pequot Tribe. In 1637 on this festival day, the pilgrims came in to this village where the Pequot tribe lived and murdered over 700 of their men, women and children. The next day was declared as a “Day of Thanksgiving” by governor of the colony. You can read more about this account here. An article by the Huffington Post affirms this same account.

We are taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 and that it took place because the pilgrims had a successful crop harvest and they invited the surrounding Native tribes to a great feast. But we aren’t told anything else.

Gale Courey Toensing of Indian Country Today published an article interviewing Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. This article tells the story of Thanksgiving from the Wampanoeg perspective and gives insight on this day in 1621 that we so often celebrate as “Thanksgiving Day”. According to this article, the pilgrims were celebrating their harvest and were firing cannons and guns to do so. The surrounding tribes came over to check out what was happening and stayed to make sure that the pilgrims were telling the truth. There was no reaching out to the Native tribes to celebrate and make peace. You can read the full article here.

So are there any positive aspects of the holiday? Mahala told me that “It’s a good concept, it just doesn’t match the actual history” and that even though it is historically inaccurate, “Its great to take time to recognize what you are thankful for”.

I asked Mahala what she wished the non-Native community understood about Thanksgiving, to which she replied “I want them to realize in general what they learn when they are young is not always right.” “People need to open their eyes to what actually happened. There is still a lot of persecution and oppression (of many different cultures in our society) and people need to do their research”.

It is just pure ignorance for us to go on celebrating this holiday and attaching it to false history. Sure, it is great to spend quality time with family and friends and to reflect on what one is grateful for. But to associate it with false claims that help instil oppression in our society is detrimental. We need to be willing to learn about other cultures and to open our eyes to the fact that much of the history we are taught as children is biased.

So how does one go about learning about other cultures? When I asked Mahala what advice she would give to someone who wants to learn more about the Native culture, she replied “A lot of the best information comes from someone who is Native/ someone who has that first hand account of what it is like”. She recommends reading academic journals and articles. “If you want the information you can find it. Indigenous people were all over these lands. Information is everywhere.”

The process of education is exactly that; a process. Mahala told me that people should “Never feel bad for being uneducated on certain topics.”, but that they should “Make a strive to learn.”

She concluded by saying that “I’m constantly learning about communities that I got false information on. You have to be willing to open your mind to things. Never feel bad if you come from a place of privilege, just make the effort to educate yourself. Education is everything.”

So while you’re enjoying feasting with friends and family, try to think about why you celebrate. Reflect on what you’ve been taught and what you can do to help our society set the record straight.

The information is out there. So be thankful for it and be educated.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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