Thanksgiving: A Native American View

It’s hard for me to think about Thanksgiving without thinking of what happened on this continent to bring us to today. It’s a sad story that has been repeated too little, yet most European-Americans are already tired of hearing it.

Thanksgiving, for the last three or four years, has been a time for me when I very deliberately think about the First Nations - native peoples who had this continent taken from them. Native Americans remain the most impoverished group, per capita, in the United States. Tomorrow is a day of repentance for me, so I try to think in generational terms: that I can still take ownership of the things done by my ancestors, and repent of them. I make it a point each year to find articles written by Native Americans, about this holiday, to keep some perspective.

A native friend told me today, “I wish you peace and love for your household and your family, tomorrow.” But I didn’t tell her “Happy Thanksgiving.” Those words hold different meaning for her.

All that said, there's nowhere in the world I'd rather live, so I am humbled and I am grateful.

Thanksgiving: A Native American View

by Jacqueline Keeler

I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official U.S. celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people.
More after the jump below...

To the Pilgrims, and most English and European peoples, the Wampanoags were heathens, and of the Devil. They saw Squanto not as an equal but as an instrument of their God to help his chosen people, themselves.

In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil. I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.

Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused. Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle. And the healing can begin.
Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing "Land of the Pilgrim's pride" in "America the Beautiful." Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing "Land of the Indian's pride" instead.
Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in Winds of Change, an American Indian journal.

Click here to read her entire article.


Brandon K. Baker said...


Thanks for sharing the article and thank you for keeping Thanksgiving in perspective. The last few Thanksgivings have been confusing and difficult for me. One the one hand, I see that this day has come to embody everything that is wrong with our "victor's history" in the United States. On the other hand, I know that it is also a time for family and friends to gather and be thankful for one another and their blessings. It's a question of holding these two things in tension. How can we collectively become aware of our past without beating people over the head with history as it really was and not what we would have it be. So many people react negatively to speaking about the true nature of the "first Thanksgiving" and the subsequent treatment of indigenous peoples which continues to this day.

Thanks for holding this up in the light of truth. Hopefully we can chase some of the darkness away.


Peter J Walker said...

Brandon, dude, thanks for the thoughtful response. I find myself faced with the same tension.

Chip Wilson said...

Is being thoughtful, introspective, and repentant about things your ancestors may or may not have done the equivalent of mental masturbation? One thing I've learned as a student of Philosophy is that the only ones that mean anything are the ones that provoke thought which in turn provokes action. World views that only do the former are simply logic exercises and meaningless on any real intrinsic level. Views that adhere to promoting only action are usually destructive dogmas and doctrines that lead to these socially awful situations certain groups get to feel bad about hundreds of years later. (IE Inquistion, Trail of Tears, Holocaust, etc)

I guess my challenge is that if you are really feeling repentant, if this is a subject you do feel so strongly about, what actions are these thoughts provoking? Is there an actual conviction here or a stance that allows you to fulfill some sort of privately selfish desire to be "right" about?

I don't mean any disrespect, just sort of acting out as the Mouth of Sauron here.

Chip Wilson said...

Dangit, not sure if you know...but Chip Wilson = Pat Allen. I can't get my profile to display otherwise for some silly reason.

Peter J Walker said...

Chip Wilson is a great name.

"The equivalent of mental masturbation?"

No, and - apart from you specifically Pat - I tend to feel pretty suspicious of folks who get so defensive, or so vitriolic, when talking about this sort of "repentance" stuff. Why does it unnerve them so much? What's preventing them from owning some associative role, or perhaps acknowledging some personal complicity? Is it so important not to be seen as guilty?

I'm guilty as shit.

Here's the thing: my beliefs do translate into something tangible: the way that I vote (I know you don't vote and I don't want to get into that now), the way that I approach and implement leadership, and DEFINITELY the way I've come to view "conversion" and "evangelism." I don't live the way I used to - and relationships are where that started.

Moreover, if you read the post above this one, about Richard Twiss, and if you're familiar with the South African Truth Commissions, you'll know how important it has been for marginalized people to be given voice and validation in society. Do the truth commissions immediately transform society? Maybe not, maybe they provide emotional catharsis. But if enough people hear the truth, society does change.

Too few Americans understand what was done here. Even the numbers used to quantify loss of life have been moderated and downplayed because 49 million dead is too much to own. Those numbers might actually require real reparative action.

I don't know that anyone is feeling better about the Holocaust, and there was a realization made in the 1980s that the vast majority of Americans had no clue what it even was - what had happened. That's when huge efforts were made to bring discussion about it into education, the arts and the public sphere. I don't think that was wasted effort. Are we better as a society, for it? I can't determine that, but I wouldn't want the alternative: a society ignorant of what was done only 50-some years ago.

Candi said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I'm newly born to this awareness of others inhabiting my planet. God, I suck! My spirit has been very disturbed leading up to this "holiday". Reading people's Facebook posts celebrating the gluttony and consumerism of it all has only made me more ill. Because that was me and I was blind and selfish. Because that is still so many people. And all the while, there are those who suffer in silence and darkness.

There are so many things that are truly screwed up in our world, but my heart has been drawn to Native Americans. Could you suggest any resources as to how I can be better informed or involved in this area?

Peter J Walker said...

I really do believe that awareness makes a difference! From that awareness, we're also more likely to find ways to take action, too. is a great place to start. There's a newsletter you can signup for. His book ( is a great resource on Native culture from a progressive Christian standpoint.

Randy Woodley, a professor at George Fox Seminary, has a couple of books (

I read the book 'Daughters of Coppewoman' ( during my undergrad, and it impacted me profoundly. is a website dealing with native/indigenous issues. It's not presented for "outsiders," it's for their own communities - grants, training, research - but it provides lots of resources and information to understand their contemporary efforts.

Good luck Candi and stay in touch!

Chip Wilson said...

"Mental Masturbation" is when you work a topic over in your head, you approach various angles, you make some conclusions that make you feel better and finally don't really do anything physical with it. I'm honestly baffled about the whole guilt complex you seem to be describing.

Maybe its because most of my ancestors were bootleggers and cowboys, Assinaboine and Sioux, mixed people who tried to do the best they could with what they had. I think what really makes the guilt complex hard for me to swallow is the story of my great grandmother.

She was a daughter of the Assiniboine tribe and forced out of the Dakotas into Montana by the push west by white settlers. When she was pretty old my Mom would take care of her and one night Neeny, what I called her, complained of back pain. My mom offered to give her a back rub. What she discovered when she lifted my grandmother's shirt were dozens of waxy scars that literally covered her from the neck to the top of her backside.

When asked, Neeny simply smiled and quietly described how she was whipped and punished whenever she "acted like an Indian". If she wore moccassins, or braided her hair, or went barefoot, the nuns got the whip out. My mom asked how she could be so calm about it and Neeny had another simple reply.

"I forgave them. Quite a long time ago. Thats why I like Jesus so much, he makes it easy to forgive things.". Thats right, she had accepted Jesus as her savior. She said that the principles of Christianity that were forced onto her in those schools were so closely linked to the spiritual beliefs she had been initially raised with that it was not difficult to make the mental leap from one to the other.

You see, Pete, my view on the subject is that sure...what happened to these cultures was really terrible. But should I feel responsible for what happened? Of course not. I had no say in what happened...but more importantly forgiveness is in the heart of the wronged. It is something that cannot be forced, simply asked for, and situations such as this where you are feeling guilty for things done centuries before your birth...who are you suppose to ask forgiveness from? God? I have a suspicion that the guilt you feel isn't really about what Native Americans have suffered from but perhaps something more personal. I think that should be studied, questioned and probed. If you have personally, at some point in your life, said or done things that were hurtful to natives then the guilt complex might make more sense. And that would be well within your rights to seek reparation for.

I'm going to share this blog with my mom. She would have an interesting perspective on the issues being discussed as she works as a Vocational Rehab Counselor for North Eastern Montana and has about 4 reservations under her district. Lots of Native American clients. She attended the North American Native American Council up in Alaska last year and has had to undergo specific training on how to approach and speak to various tribes.

Ultimately, mission success Pete, you got me thinking about various things on this holiday...

...but I still don't feel guilty. Just curious. Heh.

Peter J Walker said...

I know exactly what mental masturbation is. Which is why I am trying to describe to you why and how my process has been more than jerking myself off, mentally.

Pat, part of it is I really have led a privileged life. I'm aware of that. And I feel obligated to do something helpful with that privilege.

That's an incredible story about your grandmother, and a good demonstration of how different our experiences - and our families' experiences - have been. I don't have a history of marginalization.

I don't think you or I had a say in what happened. But at least for me, my lifestyle is a DIRECT result of the robbery of a continent and the near-extermination of a people. I have to mourn for that. It would be unconscionable not to. And from that mourning, I am TRYING to find ways in my life (however small or ultimately insignificant) to correct the wrongs done in the past. You can say the past is over, and it is, but that doesn't mean the effects of the past have to be left unchanged.

I feel the same way about slavery. We live in a country whose foundations are built on the backs of slaves. Have I owned slaves? Of course not. But the pyramids still give testimony to their creation. So does white American dominance today bear witness to America's past.

I'm really enjoying the dialogue, Pat, and I'd love to chat with your mom about this.

Kathy Ryan said...

Personal perspective:
We appear to be a people, at times, where our intellectual independence tends to feed our attitude of arrogance in thinking/believing it is within our power to change generational sins/bias/prejudice. The concept/motivation behind Manifest Destiny existed long before the United States did. If we look at human nature - the desire to defeat and conquer has been with us since creation.

We can try to slap a social band aid on the injuries our ancestors created; however, the injury usually remains infected and flares up over and over. Or - we can invite the Lord to show us how to respect another person's humanness. We can start with our own attitude of soul (encompassing our thoughts/personality/heart/emotions) towards others - whatever the cultural differences are. Please understand - when this invitation to the Lord is given, it can lead us on a path of conviction that can be very painful. But, it will give us new eyes, new hearing, and most definitely a new heart attitude.

After all - what is the purpose? If you were the only white male on earth - He would have shed His blood for you. If you were the only Native American male on earth He would have shed His blood for you. The only female - the only...the only...the only. One is not held in any higher esteem than another in His eyes.

That is my goal. Learning to see another human through His eyes. It is - I hate to admit - difficult for me at times. For - if I can (and I do) dehumanize another - I can then justify my own behavior. Conversely - if I elevate another - I can also justify my behavior.

I best quit for now. Just some thoughts.

Kathy Ryan (Patrick's Mom!)

Peter J Walker said...

Kathy (Pat's Mom), great to meet you! I've very much enjoyed knowing your son.

I agree with you immediately regarding the intellectual arrogance that comes with independence and what - for me - is a generally optimistic view of human capacity.

But I think that my process has been very close to what you describe here: "inviting the Lord to show us how to respect another person's humanness... starting with our own attitudes of soul toward others..." Asking to see the world through brokenness; through the eyes of Christ.

I'm not attempting anything prescriptive here. And I don't think merely identifying with and empathizing with the marginalized is inherently salvific. But I do think it's the beginning of something salvific - the process of redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, hope, love, peace, yada yada yada... there are concrete ways that we can live our lives, participate in politics and economics, and most importantly - maintain relationships - that do more than slap a bandaid. We have the capacity to participate in the healing process. Bishop Desmond Tutu speaks about the importance of naming the wounds, about how important it is for the "majority" to listen, to pay attention, and whenever possible to apologize for ignorance or complicity. I am guilty of both.

I got your e-mail too, and look forward to getting to know you better.

Thanks Kathy,

Candi said...

Peter, Thank you so much for the suggested resources. I am excited to learn more.

I appreciate your heart in this matter. Awareness is crucial and like you said, it's only the beginning. But, I had someone who was frustrated with me around this topic that said, "We can't be going around feeling guilty about stuff we didn't even do. At some point, you gotta just get over it and move forward." Hmmm.... Get over it? I also had a friend who posted on Thanksgiving that the pilgrims get a bum rap for taking the Indians land. Because, "after all, if they hadn't, then we wouldn't be here today". Seriously? My hands may never have hurt another, but my life is privileged because others have been pushed aside to make room for it. If I sit in complacency thanking the Lord above for my "blessings" than doesn't that make me just as guilty as the people who did the physical injustice? We as a country still subject much of this world to suffering because of our greed and our need to have whatever we want whenever we want it.

I guess all I am saying is that a little guilt isn't such a bad thing. It means you are conscious of the ills and hopefully your next move is to find ways to change the systems or build relationships that bridge the gaps.

Thank you for your words and your kind spirit. =)

Peter J Walker said...

Candi, we are of the exact same mind here. Thank you :)

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