As Thanksgiving break draws closer, all students can feel grateful for the five-day reprieve from classes before the last week of the semester and the ordeal of finals. Despite the generally heartwarming atmosphere of the holiday, however, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of the dark history of relationships between the U.S. and Native Americans.
The NC State Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED) notes that November is “Native American Heritage Month,” although one could be forgiven for not knowing this, as the notice is posted on a banner in Talley, and in a few locations across OIED subpages, but otherwise not well publicized. For instance, no mention is made in the weekly HOWL email, one of the few messages sent to all students.
Unfortunately, such poor attention is reflective of the larger society’s apathy. Growing up, I learned a story of the first Thanksgiving similar to that presented in a National Geographic Kids article, which in some form or another remains the common explanation for the holiday today.
In winter of 1620, after months of sailing, a group of English Puritans landed on the coast of modern-day Massachusetts. After weathering the harsh winter, the settlers met some men from the Wampanoag tribe who helped teach them agricultural skills, which enabled them to successfully establish Plymouth colony. In the fall of 1621, the Europeans and Native Americans gathered for a shared meal in celebration of the harvest and their mutual cooperation.
Unfortunately, that peace swiftly eroded. Within one generation, settlers in Plymouth were already at war with the Wampanoags over land, a trend that the United States would continue for much of its history. It is impossible for us to turn back the clock and restore all that the U.S. and colonial settlers have taken from tribes throughout history. However, it is never too late to raise awareness for the problems that subjugation has created for American Indian populations, and to learn more about their vibrant cultures.
Although advertising for the events has been rather lackluster, Multicultural Student Affairs is hosting a variety of opportunities for all students to gain a greater understanding of the history and culture of indigenous peoples. Culture Night on Tuesday described a variety of cultural traditions for attendees. On Saturday, the NC Museum of History will host a celebration of North Carolina’s eight state-recognized tribes and their cultures. The Gregg Museum of Art and Design will host a night for Native American students to present art on Monday.
NC State also hosts an Indigenous People’s Day (which happened Oct. 9), instead of celebrating Columbus Day, in a show of recognition for the injustices of colonial history. In addition to a dinner in Clark Dining Hall featuring foods from North Carolina Native Communities, the day included a panel in which indigenous students shared their experiences.
These admirable projects, and the efforts of groups like the Native American Student Association, which attempts to foster community among Native American students and advance awareness in all students, provide crucial starting points for developing a conversation about the challenges facing indigenous populations and students.
As a state with a strong Native American presence, North Carolina has a significant role in preserving and expanding the cultures of indigenous peoples. As residents of this state, we should take advantage of our position to learn more about those who first settled the land we call home for 8-12 months of the year. As students, we must strive to honor the diversity of our university and of our state, by exploring the groups that give it a rich cultural texture.
This Thanksgiving, we should all take the time to learn more about American Indians, their complex culture, and the history of our government’s relationships with the tribes. By combatting the fairy tale of pilgrims and Indians chowing down to turkey and stuffing, we can advance a more thoughtful dialogue and work towards resolving disputes that have stained the character of the United States since the first colonists arrived four centuries ago.