I’m Native for a Lifetime, not “Indian for a Day”

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Most people can remember Thanksgiving activities when they were in elementary school. Many teachers assigned students tasks where they had to cut out brown construction paper headbands and adorn them with various colors of store bought feathers. These students would wear these headbands, and other creations to “celebrate” Thanksgiving. My classmates were able to be an “Indian” for a day, around smiling faces and a welcoming, happy setting. 

In elementary school I was called an apple, a redskin, an engine, and once was even called a wagon burner. I was called these names because the people around me didn’t understand or care to understand me. While I felt alone when being called these names, I knew my ancestors were with me, giving me strength, because you see, I can’t be “Indian” for a day, I am native for my whole life. 

My classmates were able to open a textbook and read about strong, brave people who traveled to the “new world,” but when I opened our textbooks at school, I was angry by the kinds of things I saw about my own people. There was often no representation of my people, and what I did see was romanticized or portrayed us as violent. 

Thanksgiving should be re-written in our history books. It started out as the pilgrims needing the natives help because winter was closing in and they had no idea how to cover crops, fish or hunt. Our people helped them. We taught them how to survive on the land and give back to the earth the way that we had done things for thousands of years on this land. If only our people had known how much greed was in the hearts of some of these people. The history textbooks written by the white man leave so many details. 

Thanksgiving is largely a myth. There you have it. That’s the truth. Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated as a national holiday until 300 years after folks thought it occurred. President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a holiday 1863, during the Civil War. The term “pilgrim” wasn’t even used until 1820, and actually when newcomers first arrived to this land, they were called “Saints” or “Separatists.” 

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving as a sacred gathering of native peoples and pilgrims where a meal was shared. But that story isn’t entirely true. The official holiday we know as Thanksgiving came into existence in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. His men had gone nearby to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children, and when his men made it home safely, he decided to “dedicate an official day of ‘thanksgiving’ complete with a feast to ‘give thanks’ for their great ‘victory‘.”  

It’s not just in textbooks and bedtime stories that our people are portrayed in an incorrect light. In many texts, our people are called “violent” or “savages.” The Declaration of Independence says that we are “ merciless Indian savages.” How can we be the savages when Abraham Lincoln ordered Lakota warriors to be hung for war crimes they didn’t commit. How can we be the savages when we entered into treaties and agreements, only for the other side to continuously break them? When we gave, they kept taking, offering nothing in return. 

For a long time growing up it was hard to find hard, factual information about my people in textbooks or in an academic setting. Programs at high schools and universities like Native American cultural clubs give American Indian students some factual background information on their real history and culture. Students in these spaces are able to learn alongside people that understand them and look like them. 

It’s not just holidays like Thanksgiving that are upsetting.  Halloween is also an issue because the same kids who wore paper headbands trying to represent my people as children are now wearing provocative mass made costumes and “war paint” so that they can be Indian for a day (again!). They buy their costumes from Party City or Walmart and their lack of awareness shows they are uneducated and do not care.  If someone dresses in a hijab or blackface for Halloween they would be called out, but dress as a native and get compliments. I’d also like to point out that natives do not DRESS IN COSTUMES, we dress in REGALIA. 

Our people cannot be Indians for a day, because we are Natives for a lifetime. We protest proposed pipelines on our land and are sprayed with tear gas. We try to protect the earth and we are arrested. We try to dress in our regalia only to have others mock us and dress in deviant costumes. I wonder what will happen to our people thirty years from now. 

An elder once told me “always wear turquoise , so when the ancestors look down they’ll know you’re our child.” Our history will be re-written, and there will be lies just like before. But as long as we keep our culture and traditions flowing throughout generations one day we will be writing our own history books.

Tala Náhele (Haley Humphries) is from the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina.  Her goal is to awaken American Indian students and give them a voice and a way to be heard .

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