Thanksgiving can be a weird time of year for anybody: the forced family time, crass consumerism and mealtime conversation are enough to drive anyone up the wall. But for queer Native Americans, Thanksgiving can represent a holiday whitewashed by mythological stories of pilgrims playing nice with Native Americans, when in actuality, the tense and often violent relationship between the settlers and natives included pilgrims robbing native graves, stealing their food and generally regarding natives as pagan savages.
So in light of all this, we asked four queer Native Americans how they’ll be spending the upcoming holiday. Here’s what they told us.
Keith Evans, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe
The commercial celebration of Thanksgiving (or, “Thanks-taking,” as I call it) is something that I have always had mixed feelings with. I am always happy to see my family and celebrate the holidays with them in one fashion or another (i.e. Christmas, birthdays, etc.). However, Thanksgiving is something that I didn’t struggle with until I had a fundamental understanding of what the history in this country really represents concerning that particular holiday.
Granted, I am of mixed heritage. However, seeing that I am two-thirds Native, I have always identified as Native. My dad’s side of the family is where the mixture of heritages comes into play, as he is also part Native, as well as Black (I do not use the term African-American for a variety of reasons) and Creole. That side of my family has always celebrated Thanksgiving. Truth be told, the Native side of my family has always celebrated as well. However, I do believe that the celebrations are vastly different.
In no way, shape or form are either side celebrating the “holiday” in its truest form, as I suspect many others are not. It is just an excuse to get together with family over a ridiculous amount of food and be together. And, as awful as this sounds, it doesn’t have much of an emotional affect on us. We are rather immune to the celebration of the day.
To elaborate, The Native Americans of this country are a forgotten people. It seems that no one really cares if something offends us or not, otherwise you wouldn’t have a national sports team in existence known as the Washington Redskins. We take the celebration of this “holiday” in stride year after year and try to look at the positive aspects of what it means to be with family and leave the negative stuff to the side.
Now, this is where it takes a turn for me as a sexual minority. Thanksgiving took on an entirely different meaning to me 14 years ago, as this was the time in which I came out and found someone that I loved deeply. Just before potentially making our relationship official (he invited me to his family’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas), he was killed. Ever since then, Thanksgiving took on an entirely different meaning. I try to be as positive as I can around that time of year, which is often difficult. The anniversary always falls on the week of Thanksgiving and it has yet to get any easier.
The “holiday” has taken on special significance for me, as it is now just a week to try to get by without breaking down. Being with family does ease the pain a bit for me. No loud protests from our dinner table. Thanksgiving, for me, is just a time to be around friends and family and just be grateful for what I have. No one in my family will ever celebrate it or even consider it a real holiday. However, we can always look to the past and take the time to be grateful for what we have right in front of us. And, that is each other.
Gerardo Tristan, a Nahuatl (Aztec) Indian
My name is Gerardo Tristan and I am a Nahuatl (Aztec) Indian, queer, antispeciesist and immigrant from northeastern Mexico living in the USA for the past 15 years. As a person from another country with a very different identity and culture, this holiday does not mean much to me personally, but I am deeply troubled by the myths and whitewashing that surround it.
The few times I attended a Thanksgiving celebration in the past, I was always uncomfortable about the lack of dialogue and understanding aroundwhat this holiday represents for us Native Americans in the U.S. I tried a couple of times at these dinners to share my experience and point of view on the broader subject of the colonization of this continent, and how its negative ramifications continue to harm Indians today. But I was largely ignored or people changed the subject. Thus, I felt ostracized and invisible.
Although I don’t attend these celebrations anymore, I still want people to understand our side of the story. I want to talk about land theft, mass killings, forced removals, violent and forced assimilation, broken treaties, rampant human rights abuses, destruction of families and communities by the boarding schools system, and many other historical events that contradict this sanitized Thanksgiving table and celebration of white settlers.
My current position on Thanksgiving is that participating in this holiday without trying to address Natives’ perspectives, as well as addressing the impact of this history on Natives today, contributes to preserving a harmful false narrative, and to further erasing Indigenous voices and experiences. By not celebrating Thanksgiving, I am choosing not to normalize the erasure of our history, nor to cover the ugly violence of this holiday.
It’s also very important to me to note that as a queer minority, I am all too familiar with the experience of being oppressed and “otherized” for arbitrary differences. I’ve been discriminated against on the basis of different sexual/gender expressions, as well as the difference of how I look to hetero, white, cis males. Furthermore, within the queer and LGBTQ community, I have been discriminated against because I am of different race and culture, speak a different language, and have different needs and struggles from the mainstream LGBTQ movement.
Because I reject the violent ideology of devaluing other bodies as “less than,” I am also an anti-speciesist: I reject the system of harming and oppressing non-human animals just because they have different bodies and abilities than human animals. And this is especially resonant for me on Thanksgiving, a day for which some 46 million turkeys are slaughtered every year in the U.S. alone. I believe that committing mass and unnecessary murder of sentient beings just because they are of a different species is arbitrary and deeply unjust.
As a vegan, I can’t accept the needless and normalized suffering of the millions of individuals who are tortured and killed for this celebration each year. Turkeys are individuals just as much as cats and dogs are (and people for that matter), and they are intelligent, inquisitive and affectionate; they form deep friendships and emotional bonds. Turkeys killed for Thanksgiving suffer unimaginable horrors just to end up on this fleeting holiday menu.
More and more, Thanksgiving feels to me like a celebration of lies, mass murder (both past and present, human and nonhuman), colonialism, and death. So I won’t be sitting at the table serving dead carcasses, and if you do, please consider taking this opportunity to start meaningful conversations about the “encounter” of Natives and whites: what does this story mean to you? How do you own that part of your history, and how can you make it better for Native Americans today in both Canada and the U.S.A.? Remember that we are still being impacted every day by the stories you tell, and the narratives you choose to celebrate; including whether — and how— you celebrate Thanksgiving.
Marty Fixico, Cheyenne Two-Spirit
With regard to Thanksgiving, I understand why some indigenous tribal people don’t like this holiday because of all the years of misinformation (some call it outright lying) about how the benevolent white pilgrims invited the poor Indians to dinner … blah, blah, blah. For me personally, the commercial celebration of Thanksgiving, like other American national holidays, is not worth being upset about.
And it’s true that it’s frustrating, but there’s an idea from the Bible that goes “Be not overcome with evil but overcome evil with good.” I stopped believing the Bible was the inerrant Word of God when I came out of the closet in the ’80s. But like other self-help books, it does have some insightful ways of looking at Life.
Bottom line: I enjoy Thanksgiving, even with its whitewashed historical myths. I am grateful for the time being with my dysfunctional family as much as anyone. I just block out the “evilness” of it and overturn evil for good. My grandma used to always say, “If Indians couldn’t laugh, we would have died out a long time ago.” The idea of getting paid not to work on a holiday is an added bonus.
I’m saying all this as a self-aware 60-year-old Cheyenne hema’-nee, our word for what is known as a Two-Spirit person in modern times. Growing up in Oklahoma with each foot in separate worlds — one white and one indigenous — was difficult, but I do have much in common with rest of the non-native population raised with the heavy-handed hypocrisy of Southern fundamentalist Christianity.
I discovered in college that it was government policy to assimilate the indigenous populations into mainstream America society so as to intentionally erase our tribal identities, traditions and culture. And it has been a fairly successful policy, including the adoption of homophobia and dissolution of our traditional values of recognizing the “hema’-nee” as a valued part of society. But it was never totally successful, thank Mahe’ot (our word for the creator). My grandmother said Mahe’ot means, “I don’t know” because we don’t know what it (God) is, but “it’s everything.”
We have our own holiday known as Sundance, which occurs in summers. It’s our new year, and time for recommitment to our way of Life and our values, even though some values have been lost. We also have many social gatherings during the year celebrating any number of reasons — birthdays, soldiers going into service, graduations, etc. — much like any American family gathering, except it includes native singing and dancing in traditional outfits.
So for many of us, it’s not so much that we celebrate Thanksgiving and other holidays for the sake of American propaganda but more so because it gives us a reason to gather like we all have done since ancient times.
Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate with your loved ones and appreciate life, to be thankful to Mother Earth and Father Sky. My sexual orientation never separated me from my family. They have never judged me for being gay. My family has respected me as a son, brother and uncle. I eat with my family and celebrate the traditions we have. I enjoy every bit of it.
For the past five years, I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my niece and her family. My siblings’ kids are considered my own, and their kids are my grandkids. Every time I see them, they always welcome me with open arms, telling me they love me. I do not have kids of my own. I have a wonderful connection with my nieces and nephews more than my own siblings. I try to be a good role model to them, making sure whatever they need, I will be there. I am grateful to have them in my life.
This story was originally published on November 20, 2017.