Students share thoughts on Thanksgiving holiday, Native American misrepresentation

The Thanksgiving holiday primarily puts its focus on the Native American community. It is well documented that the peaceful relations between Native Americans and the Pilgrims taught in so many American schools is, at best, romanticized, and at worst, flagrantly misleading.

While relations between the Pilgrims and the Native American tribes they came in contact with began peacefully, as time wore on and the Pilgrims began colonizing more and more Native land, Native tribes began warring with the Pilgrims in 1675, which in the end, left over 5,000 dead, over three quarters of which were Native American, according to History.com.

Yet not many people outside of Native American culture seem to be aware of this reality.

Lydia Hickey, a first-year student in the College of Health and Sciences, said she was taught a part of this misleading history.

“I remember when I was younger we learned in school that Thanksgiving was a happy holiday and that it was celebrated by pilgrims and Native Americans together,” Hickey said.

Lara Koutah, a first-year in the College of Health Sciences, said she watched many movies and specials that cast a similar light on Thanksgiving, including the popular Peanuts special “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” 

In that show, one of the characters, Linus, sits at the Thanksgiving table and describes the first Thanksgiving, with the Pilgrims simply looking for freedom and justice and to coexist with their Native neighbors.

Koutah said watching this growing up created a falsified image of Thanksgiving for many children, including herself.

“I remember thinking that the Native Americans were so excited to share their food and culture with the white people, and they all ate at the same table and everyone was happy,” Koutah said.

Clare Camblin, a sophomore in the College of Communication and an active member of the Osage Nation, said this extreme misrepresentation of the treatment of the Natives by Pilgrims in popular culture is not only disrespectful to Native culture and the suffering that Native Americans went through, but also deeply disillusioning to history.

Camblin said before learning and having an appreciation for her heritage, she learned everything she knew about Thanksgiving and Indigenous culture in school.

It was really difficult to mentally make the switch and process that what I was taught was not true in the slightest,” Camblin said in an email. “Thanksgiving truly is a grim reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people and the theft of Native lands.” 

Though Camblin said the misrepresentation of Thanksgiving in children’s media is egregious, she also thinks that there is a way to make amends between the history of the holiday and the values it represents.

She said that while some people reject the Thanksgiving holiday, her family still celebrates it to embrace the positive messages, such as community and good harvest.

“Giving thanks is still essential to the lives of Native people, and the holiday is still an opportunity to overlook the complexity of the holiday with hope and healing,” Camblin said in an email. “That outlook is probably what I would want to be portrayed in the media, especially to kids. Awareness of what truly happened, but a positive outlook in what could be.”

This story was written by Ryan Lynch. He can be reached at ryan.p.lynch@marquette.edu.