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This Thanksgiving, what to consider during conversations about the holiday's history

Indigenous cultures advocate Marleen Villanueva says parents and others teaching kids about the holiday don't need to rely on the "myth" of a peaceful Thanksgiving. Instead, having honest conversations can help them build empathy.
Indigenous cultures advocate Marleen Villanueva says parents and others teaching kids about the holiday don't need to rely on the "myth" of a peaceful Thanksgiving. Instead, having honest conversations can help them build empathy.

For some Indigenous Americans, Thanksgiving is not a day for celebration. The United American Indians of New England actually declared it a National Day of Mourning in 1970. But the traditions vary widely, with others focusing on the blessing of a successful harvest.

Talking to kids about the holiday as a time to focus on what we're grateful is easy. It can feel trickier to explore the truth behind the historical first Thanksgiving, and the way Indigenous people have been treated. But Marleen Villanueva says it doesn't have to be complicated.

"Every year, as you continue to develop a relationship with the native, Indigenous peoples of the lands that you're on, you have more to share with your young one, and your young one's going to learn through actions," Villanueva said.

Villanueva works for the Indigenous Cultures Institute based in San Marcos. She is a PhD student at the University of Toronto in Social Justice Education. Villanueva spoke with Texas Standard about taking steps towards more understanding about native histories and current experiences. Listen to the interview with Villanueva in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: I think many Texans grew up with the Thanksgiving stories about the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together in harmony. Tell us: is there anything wrong with that story and using it to frame Thanksgiving?

Marleen Villanueva: Yeah. So there's so much in terms of histories and the ways that histories are written that a lot of folks – especially Native folks, Indigenous folks – see as more of a myth, more of a creation, an idea that was perpetuated and actually a lie. So the ways we learned our histories about this land is that there were already Indigenous people here when the settlers arrived, and that the interaction that is taught as peaceful and giving – in terms of Thanksgiving – is not actually true.

So what actually happened is that there was a massacre in the 1600s that [former Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John] Winthrop decided to celebrate [when] his soldiers came back home. But what that meant is he was also celebrating the massacre of Indigenous peoples who had to die in order for him to be able to celebrate that first Thanksgiving.

You say when "we learned it," you're talking about you and your family? 

Yeah. So “we,” as in the Indigenous communities that I grew up a part of, as opposed to, for example, learning in school. I feel like the school textbook version of Thanksgiving is very different than the story that we learn at home and community, in our tribe, in our nation.

Could you tell us a little bit about the tribe you're from and your background? 

Yes. So I am a member of the Miakan-Garza Band of Coahuiltecan people here in Texas, and I am also from Pame/Chichimeca lands of Central Mexico. And so those are the two communities that I am a part of, that claim me and that I've grown in relationship to.

How can we more accurately reflect the holiday and the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples in age-appropriate ways? This is something you are studying actively at the moment.

This is such an important conversation to have with young ones. I think, first of all, realizing: where are you in terms of your own education about these issues? You can learn about the original caretakers of the land that you're on. So for example, if you go to [the website], open up their app, open up their website. You can type in the city or the town where you're at right now, and you can actually see what tribes, communities, nations, Indigenous peoples are from the land that you're on. You can start to educate yourself.

Once you have some background, some education that, wow, Indigenous peoples are still here, very much a part of the community, you begin to see that the histories that you learned growing up in school are not true. You can sit down with the young ones and just be real about it. Truth and honesty is what's going to help us build empathy. It's what's going to help us have real conversations, honest conversations, about the realities of this country so that our young ones, who are the future, can help us move in a good way – a way in which we begin to repair those relationships, in a way where we can build upon allyships with Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples.

So, I think sitting down with our young ones and telling them: you know what? I know we've been doing Thanksgiving this way for 10 years or X amount of years, [but] this year, I want to tell you a little bit about what I've been learning. And every year, as you continue to develop a relationship with the Native, Indigenous peoples of the lands that you're on, you have more to share with your young ones. And your young ones are going to learn through actions. By seeing you develop that relationship, going out and supporting different public events, donating, all of that. The young ones are watching, they're looking, and these conversations can become more deep, more complex, more nuanced. And it's going to build that empathetic heart for these young ones to be able to be the ones who are repairing these relationships that have taken so long for us to get to a conversation with.

Are there resources where you can find out more about the history of Indigenous peoples and tribes?

Like I mentioned, is a great website, great app. And they're very up front about this [being] an ongoing website; there may be some mistakes, but they're very much open to Native people reaching out and saying, actually, this is the pronunciation or this is the way that we write our nation. So it's a really great place to start.

Also, I would suggest looking at your local community. For example, around Thanksgiving Day, there's also events happening in the community that are called Days of Mourning. There are people who fast during Thanksgiving Day, instead of eating, and in that fast, they're recognizing that grief. They're recognizing that massacre that began that first Thanksgiving. And so they fast. And at the end of the day, they're able to eat in gratitude for being able to recognize those histories.

In fact, the United American Indians of New England actually declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning back in 1970, and I guess this picked up over the years. What about traditions for Indigenous families? When you were growing up, did you have traditions built up around this occasion?

Yes. All along Turtle Island – meaning Canada, U.S., Mexico and even in the South – what we would have are fall harvests. This would be a feast at the end of a fall harvest, or ceremonies that were done with different sacred foods. So, for example, corn, beans, squash, these foods that are so pivotal for Thanksgiving meals, they come from Indigenous traditions. And many different Indigenous communities have ceremonies for these traditions. So you can have a corn ceremony, a corn dance. You could have feasts, but definitely around this time would be a time for fall harvests, fall feasts and fall ceremonies.

What opportunities do you think there are to consider, with kids, the history of Indigenous people in America – not just at this time of year, but year round?

There are always events and celebrations that different Native and Indigenous organizations put out. There are some that are only for Indigenous people, and then there are some that are open to all folks who want to come and learn. Education is always there, so find it for your place. Then you begin to build a relationship with the people of the land and also your own relationship to the land that you're on. In Indigenous traditions, we don't believe that humans are the only beings that live and breathe. We also acknowledge that the trees are our relatives and so are the animals. So you can build a relationship with all living beings around you in whatever way feels good for folks.

You know, a lot of people are on social media these days. I would imagine social media could be a resource unto itself.

It is such a great resource. More and more young folks are jumping on TikTok, on Instagram and sharing so much knowledge from their communities – things that their elders have taught them, recipes that they know. So if you go to TikTok and you search for the hashtag #NativeTikTok or #IndigenousTikTok, you're going to find a slew of an amazing group of people who share dances and all kinds of information in terms of what Indigenous communities are either going through or celebrating today. Also Instagram: search for "Indigenous Instagram" or "Indigenous communities" and you're going to find a lot of different resources that come up. Our Instagram handle is @Indigenouscultures, and if you jump on there, you'll find so many resources as well for all ages.

From Texas Standard

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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