Desiree Shelley’s family has observed Thanksgiving for generations, but
that doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand the protests of fellow Indians who
A native of Baltimore, Shelley has roots in the Monacan tribe of Virginia.
Her father is part Monacan, a tribe that was “Christianized” shortly after
the Jamestown colonization in the early 1600s, she said.
“Even if some American Indians celebrate (the holiday), there is a
prevailing feeling of hurt for a lot of people,” Shelley said. “We have all
been assimilated and colonized. We have lost our history, our language and
our culture. What do you expect?”
The iconic Thanksgiving image of colonists and Indians sharing
a feast has become the symbol of caring and cooperation among peoples, but
for many Native Americans it is a reminder of betrayal, bloodshed and
“It’s a day of mourning,” said William Redwing Tayac, chief of one of
Maryland’s indigenous tribes, the Piscataway Indian Nation. “Indians are
victims of the American holocaust. That’s the truth. I’m not going to paint
a rosy picture.”
The popular conception of the first Thanksgiving of 1621 is a myth, he
said. Indians taught colonists how to farm and survive in the new frontier,
only to be burned at the stake several years later as the first victims of
the Salem witch trials, Tayac said. The tribes of Massachusetts still have
demonstrations on Thanksgiving.
Tayac pays tribute to his people on Thanksgiving Day. He fasts during the
day with his family and performs a sacred harvest ceremony before sitting
down to dinner in the evening. If they have turkey, that’s just because
it’s traditional Indian food, he said.
His fight for his people continues well beyond the holiday. Tayac is
involved in a “de-anglization” program that takes assimilated American
Indians and “brings them back to being Indians,” he said. They are taught
the culture, religion, history and traditions of their people.
Joseph Stands With Many, a Cherokee Indian from Baltimore, is not as angry
about Thanksgiving as Tayac.
“Once a year people think about Indians then they forget about them,” said
Stands With Many. “Some people are militant and get bitter during
Thanksgiving. I don’t believe in holding on to things like that.”
But some things still irritate him.
“Why does American Indian Heritage Month have to be in November?” he asked.
And why do people use those cut-out decorations of Indians and Pilgrims?
“No one wants to believe that it is offensive,” he said. “It continues the
Stands With Many has complained about those decorations at his son’s
school, but the school board has refused to take them off the walls.
He has turned his frustration into an education opportunity — giving up
his 9-to-5 job to tell Cherokee stories to elementary school children,
including a performance last year at the National Museum of the American
Indian in Washington.
Giving thanks is a cycle of ceremonies for Stands With Many and his family.
It begins with the planting season and ends with the harvest. But
Thanksgiving Day is usually spent with his mother.
“Last year Mom and I went to McDonalds,” he said. “Sometimes we have
Thanksgiving has little meaning for Shelley. It’s just a day to get
together with family and have a nice meal, she said.
“The concept is not inherently bad,” she added. “I wouldn’t want to get rid
As president of the American Indian Student Union at the University of
Maryland, Shelley, too, wants to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to
She unsuccessfully tried to find grant money this year for education
outreach to elementary and middle school children, but she is looking at
other opportunities for next year that would redress the American Indian
It is the historical distortions, the cultural stereotypes and general
ignorance about indigenous peoples that makes Thanksgiving somewhat
revolting to American Indians, said Keith Colston, executive director of
the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs. Most do not celebrate
Thanksgiving. If they do, it’s not based on today’s thoughts and ideas
about the holiday, he said.
“For me personally, it is another day to get together with friends and
family,” said Colston, a member of the Tuscarora-Lumbee tribe of North
But for everyone who does celebrate it, he advised: “People should know the
historical background of the holidays they celebrate. Native Americans
shared a feast with the Pilgrims and gave thanks for the bounty of food and
for each other’s company. But Thanksgiving after that was a betrayal.”