Enduring Culture

For Native Americans, Thanksgiving can be tinged with sorrow


Published:

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.

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

World-Wise Chickens

What the Wasserman Projects’ permanent art exhibit says about diversity

An Hour With... Ron Carter

2016 Artist-in-Residence at the Detroit Jazz Festival

Back to Black

The Noir City Film Festival is right at home at Detroit’s Redford Theatre

Digging Deep

Composting group Detroit Dirt continues to unearth a wealth of success in the city’s urban farming community and beyond

Dancing in the D

Detroit Dance City Festival pliés back into town
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. 2016 Best Dressed List
  2. The Village Market
    The Trattoria inside Plymouth's Cantoro is like a visit to a small Italian town
  3. A New Day for DPS?
    Detroit Public Schools gets a fresh financial start this fall, but some say Michigan lawmakers...
  4. Birth of a Legend
    Cutting to the core of Paul Bunyan's true Great Lakes origins
  5. Designed by Detroit
    From bags to neckties, get to know some of the local fashion scene’s brightest homegrown talents
  6. Hour Detroit and Detroit Home’s Downtown Living Tour 2016
    More than 700 guests attended the first-annual Downtown Living Tour on August 5 and 6 to get a...
  7. Communing With Nature
    Pray among the pines in Hartwick Pines State Park’s log-cabin chapel