Thanking Native American Mentors:

Recognizing the “Mourning” Elements of Thanksgiving alongside Learning Gifts

Dennis Zotigh  (Kiowa/Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo/Isante Dakota Indian), in a 2011 essay, Thanksgiving from an Indigenous Perspective, updated this November 2022, asks a vital question about how “Native Americans make peace with a national holiday that romanticizes the 1621 encounter between their ancestors and English settlers, and erases the deadly conflicts that follows?” I re-read this essay every November. So one goal of this blogpost involves offering thanks for Dennis’s text and the historical context it emphasizes.

That context should be figuring into how we view and “do” Thanksgiving, I believe. On November 24, when many in the US were celebrating a holiday whose myths include stories which suppress historical elements from the actual history of Native people’s early interactions with white settlers in colonial North America, the United American Indians of New England gathered to commemorate the fourth Thursday in this month—as they have since 1970—as a day of mourning. As the homepage for this ongoing movement points out, “Many Native people do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims & other European settlers” as recurring elementary school pageants and television advertising tend to imagine this part of the US past, an imagined history often re-told around this time of year. Rather, as UAINE reminds us, Thanksgiving should also be “a day of remembrance and spiritual connection” that brings serious consideration to “the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands and the erasure of Native cultures” (UAINE, “National Day of Mourning”).

Similarly, as the Native Hope website noted in a November 23 posting this year, too often the “dominant cultural and historical story” of Plymouth Rock in 1620 and the celebration of the holiday today envision a “peaceful, friendly meeting of English settlers and the Wampanoag tribe for three days of feasting and thanksgiving in 1621, ” instead of a more nuanced (and respectful) account.

By N. C. Wyeth – Brandywine River MuseumN.C. Wyeth Catalogue Raisonné onlinePhoto by: Malcolm Varon, NYC, copyright © 2007, Public Domain,

And typical approaches to celebrating this sanitized history—including activities like schoolchildren’s construction paper headdresses–tend to create “a lump stereotype” that suppresses “the diversity of Native American tribes” while also inviting young students to “believe it’s okay to mimic Native American traditional wear, without having an understanding of its spiritual significance.”

So was it wrong to have enjoyed our turkey dinners this past week?

Quoting Steven Peters, one spokesman for the Wampanoag Tribe who reflected on Thanksgiving traditions in a 2020 interview, one way to approach the holiday respectfully—with an awareness of dominant myths’ limitations—would entail remembering that, well before the arrival of the Pilgrims, Peters’s Wampanoag ancestors “had 4 harvest festivals throughout the year,” so Peters himself recommends welcoming similar occasions a part of our lives today, and not just in November: “Gathering with family, enjoying our company, sharing our blessings and giving thanks for all that we have is a good thing,” something that could actually happen “throughout the year.” But he also asks that everyone “take a moment” during this season “to remember what happened to [his] people and the history as it was recorded and not the narrative that we had been given in the history books.”

            Such an approach might also enable us to recognize that there’s some irony in designating November as National Native American Heritage Month. And, assuming we members of white communities both see that irony and affirm the importance of learning about Native cultures—not just during this month but throughout the year—I want to mark the closing days of this month in 2022 with a different brand of Thanksgiving.

I want to thank the many Native educators and culture bearers who have patiently shared their knowledge with me over the years. My learning will never be “complete,” my any means. But this month—and, in particular, this time of “Thanksgiving”—is surely an appropriate time to honor opportunities I’ve had, thanks to generous instruction by Native colleagues, to deepen and broaden my personal understandings in ways I’ve then tried to share with students. (Continued shortcomings in my teaching are, of course, due to my own limitations and not to these wise teachers.)

Thank you to Gerald Vizenor (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation), who led a multi-day series of sessions for the NEH-sponsored institute I attended at UC-Berkeley and led us participants—university and secondary educators—through an introductory set of activities spotlighting key elements in his scholarship, including ways of reading visual imagery wherein the agency of Native people “captured” by white photography might not be immediately visible. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (1998) and Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (1999) have stayed with me, along with Professor Vizenor’s welcome to study and learn, as a white would-be ally, while recognizing my own limitations.

Thank you to Diane Glancy, who spent illuminating time at a similar institute the next summer in Georgia, with an expanded group of secondary and university teachers, who studied the history of Removals in part by reading her powerful Pushing the Bear (1996), in part by answering her call to write into that multi-vocal narrative some additional stories, added perspectives. Glancy’s own background as daughter of a Cherokee father and an English/German mother, in itself, reminded participants in that program that hybrid identities can be a resource in themselves—a kind of epistemic privilege of knowing the world from multiple standpoints.What might it mean, her teaching encouraged us to ask, to foreground listening as much as speaking, to seek marginalized perspectives, to expand our notion of the historical record to include untold and under-acknowledged perspectives? Glancy’s sequel—Pushing the Bear: After the Trail of Tears (2009)–and Designs of the Night Sky (2011) have also been generative texts for students in a number of my courses.

Thank you, again, Dennis Zotigh, who welcomed me multiple times to the NMAI as a visitor hoping to honor the generative and caring on-site pedagogy provided by the many on-site educators there, doing important work through a wide range of culture-sharing roles. Special thanks to Dennis for inviting my family and me to attend—and learn through—a Powwow.

Credit: Jarekt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of the NMAI, I also give thanks to Renée Gokey (Eastern Shawnee Oklahoma, Sac-n-Fox, and Myaamia) and for continuing to teach me by contributing to projects like the National Writing Project’s Building a More Perfect Union initiative and by assembling a multi-vocal author team for a special issue of English Journal due to appear in May 2023. Huge thanks to my amazing TCU colleague Wendi Sierra (Oneida) for her collaboration with Renée on the EJ project (sure to inform many, many secondary school classrooms), for her guidance of a project one of my Feminist Inquiry classes, led by doctoral student Saffyre Falkenberg, took on in connection with the MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) movement, and her continual teaching of me and others at TCU via her modeling and storytelling from her own courses.

Thank you, as well, to Malea Powell and Lisa King, whose multiple conversations with me informed my research for Learning Legacies. Thanks as well for the many pieces of writing—including the curatorial work you’ve done in vital editing projects—that have grown from your amazing scholarship. I greet each your ever-growing number of publications with eagerness, knowing I will learn more, as through such brilliant texts as Lisa’s Legible Sovereignties: Rhetoric, Representations, and Native American Museums (2017) and her co-edited Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics (2017). Additional thanks to Lisa for journeying with me to an SSAWW conference in Bordeaux, where  your presentation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cast a bright (and needed) light on a challenge still crying for more awareness, more resources, more strategic engagement. Malea, thank you for shepherding so many young Native scholars into positions of leadership and for bringing visionary approaches—informed by Native values and social practices—to journals as sites of shared power in academia, as in your launch of Constellations.

More recently, thank you to Brenda Child (Ojibwe, Red Lake Band) for giving a full week’s time to TCU recently, in a whole range of informative and energizing sessions. A talk on the complex history of boarding schools, a call to extend the presence of Native Studies among or university’s academic programs, a modeling of public scholarship in action, a celebration of Native culture’s presence in a children’s literature text, a commitment to connecting with local Native communities, and an energizing lecture on Native women’s diverse paths to social agency and leadership—these are just the main official occasions of your teaching. Beyond this packed schedule of presentations and conversations, you embodied and demonstrated ways of doing and learning together that we who had the benefit of time with you will be able to draw on for years to come.

Thanksgiving: it needn’t be an eating-turkey-anchored holiday based in false cultural memories. I am giving thanks to Native mentors as we transition beyond November. I will strive to be as worthy, all year long, as I can be of these learning gifts.

One thought on “Thanking Native American Mentors:

  1. Martin, Nina

    Thank you, Sarah for your message!

    Nina Martin
    Professor of Dance: School for Classical & Contemporary Dance
    Associate Professor of Medical Ed: TCU/UNTHSC School of Medicine
    Member: Lower Left Performance Collective
    Board President: Marfa Live Arts
    DanceTCU website
    TCU Lead On: Nina Martin’s Research Video


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