Enduring Culture

For Native Americans, Thanksgiving can be tinged with sorrow


The fourth Thursday of November is a welcome holiday, a ritual set aside for giving thanks — for turkey, football, a long weekend, or early-bird shopping. What began centuries ago as a celebration of a bountiful harvest holds a different meaning for various cultural groups — particularly for descendants of America’s indigenous people.

“Most people aren’t really interested in the Wampanoag,” Margaret Noori says, referring to one of the tribes that shared the “first” Thanksgiving feast with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock in 1621.

Noori, a lecturer in the University of Michigan’s Native American Studies Program, is of Ojibwa descent and an expert on the Anishinaabemowin language of Great Lakes-region tribes. “We really try to get students and teachers to think about that early dinner as a metaphor for the cultures being together with one another on the continent,” Noori says.

Others observe the day through a lens of sorrow. This Thanksgiving marks the 40th anniversary of the National Day of Mourning, which began as a Native American protest near Plymouth Rock. “It’s a statement,” says Kay McGowan, who is of Mississippi Chocktaw and Cherokee heritage and teaches native studies at Eastern Michigan University. “It’s a mechanism for raising awareness.”

McGowan and Noori agree that fighting for indigenous causes is an uphill battle. “Because we’re so small in number, we have to pick our poison,” McGowan says.

Native American numbers in Michigan are most concentrated in Wayne County, where they experience the greatest rate of joblessness, McGowan says.

Such challenges make it important to remember that Thanksgiving is about more than turkey and pie. “It’s nice that we have a positive holiday, and it gives some indigenous awareness,” Noori says.

In October, Noori was one of four U-M professors who spoke about native food and culture at the second annual Native American Dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. The menu highlighted indigenous Great Lakes fare, such as hominy, rabbit succotash, roast duck, and frybreads.

“This is something we want to be doing every year, 10, 20 years from now, and really build up … people’s awareness of, and appreciation for, the history of where we’re living and for traditions that are still very much alive today,” says Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s co-founder.

And though Zingerman’s annual feast is not indicative of the type of food at that “first” Thanksgiving, which likely relied heavily on berries, nuts, and venison, keeping traditions alive is critical.

“Typically, native participation in Thanksgiving is thought of as this distant moment in time,” Noori says. But Native Americans have not gone away. There are more than 500 sovereign Native American nations within the United States, and thousands still speak the language of Noori and McGowan’s ancestors — an enduring culture worthy of thanks.

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