We are coming up on one of America’s favorite holidays.
Thanksgiving is dedicated to spending time with family and being grateful for what we have — and, of course, eating portions that would test even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s famous 5,000-calorie-a-day diet. As a nation, we so value spending the holiday with our family that we can forget the divisions of the day: A Google search reveals many a Buzzfeed-style article listing advice on how to navigate conversations with that uncle who has vastly different politics. This emphasis on family and gratitude — and plenty of good food — is beautiful.
However, Thanksgiving has roots far darker than the sweet story of Squanto and the Pilgrims that we are fed as children. For starters, Squanto — whose name was actually Tisquantum — was able to communicate with the Pilgrims because he had learned the language after being sold as a slave by English explorers. And yes, it’s true that settlers and Wampanoag tribe members enjoyed a feast celebrating a successful harvest in 1621, but the word “thanksgiving” was first used by colonists after the Pequot massacre of 1637.
Today’s Thanksgiving myths did not emerge until a period of nationalism struck the 19th century, according to Donovin Sprague, a visiting history professor at Sheridan College. Over generations, history books and policies perpetuated the idea of a friendly collaboration between Native Americans and settlers.
“It’s still a big holiday for many Native American people,” Sprague said. “But it has kind of soured people, knowing that there’s more to this history than this glowing thing that we learned in elementary school.”
This whitewashing of our history is troubling. As we celebrate the idea of unity, we ignore how Native Americans have been oppressed since Europeans arrived on their shores. Not until 1962 — only 57 years ago — did Native Americans have the right to vote in every state, according to historian Becky Little on History.com. This disenfranchisement continues today. Just six months ago, in May, Wyoming Public Media reported on Native American voter suppression in communities across the U.S., including Fremont County.
All depressing reality aside, I am not trying to ruin your feast Thursday. I love Thanksgiving and cannot wait to sit down with my lovely loud family, eat pumpkin pie and make everyone list what they are most thankful for this year. But we would all do better to remember our complicated history in a more constructive way.
For this, I sought the opinion of Sprague, who has presented speeches on Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month across the U.S. and in Germany.
“[Thanksgiving] is not a bad thing,” Sprague told me. “Every person I know celebrates and has a good time, and they have food, and they do things just like the non-Indians do.
“Some people ask, ‘As a non-Indian, should I even celebrate this because what are the natives thinking — do they go along with this? Maybe I’m celebrating something that shouldn’t be celebrated,’” he continued. “For me, I say, hey, bring out the food and celebrate — just learn your history.”
For a dose of local history over your Thanksgiving holiday, Sprague suggests exploring the American Indian Art exhibit at The Brinton Museum, the dioramas at Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library and the museum at Fort Phil Kearny State Historic Site. Swing by Sheridan College’s Kooi Library to explore the excellent Native American exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian Museum. If you run through Kendrick during the Turkey Trot, think of the park’s historic buffalo jump.
“And you know, I love going to King Ropes, too, to go upstairs and look at the pictures,” Sprague said. “Sheridan has a lot of places that the public doesn’t realize with really neat artwork and early photographers. And it’s not just native, it’s cowboys and settlers and early ranchers, all mixed together.”
So, this Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the progress our nation has made and thoughtful about the steps we still need to take. Let’s skip paper pilgrim hats and “Indian feathers” — arts-and-crafts traditions that have ended in more progressive elementary schools — and stick to hand turkeys. Let’s learn the Sheridan area’s rich history that traces back far earlier than Generals Crook and Custer. Let’s take a walk, and remember.