If you grew up in what is now known as The United States of America, you were most likely told a very palatable Thanksgiving fable, a conveniently whitewashed version of history in which the natives of North America welcomed their European brothers and sisters with open arms and shared a feast in friendship and frivolity. But this version of history, to put it very lightly, fails to acknowledge the indigenous experience in North America. Unfortunately, Native Americans are not alone in their historic erasure and misrepresentation.
For perspective, approximately 476 million Indigenous Peoples live in the world today, spanning over ninety countries. From the 574 Indian Nations of the United States, to the Sámi of Scandinavia, to the Maya of Guatemala, indigenous cultures encompass great diversity. Despite having distinct languages, customs and histories, indigenous communities share values of reciprocity, circularity, and reverence for the interconnectedness of life.
In addition to having a common respect for the natural world, indigenous communities across the globe share similarly agonizing histories of oppression, and continue to live in the shadow of colonialism in the twenty-first century. Indigenous communities often lack formal recognition of their territories, government protection, basic infrastructure, and have life expectancies of up to two decades shorter than their non-indigenous neighbors. Even the recent movement to reclaim Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day in the United States (a progressive albeit long overdue shift) has yet to gain nationwide support. Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, explained the challenges that Indigenous Peoples face in her 2008 speech at Quinnipiac University, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Without question, the combined efforts of the government and various religious groups to eradicate traditional knowledge systems has had a profoundly negative impact on the culture as well as the social and economic systems of Indigenous Peoples. One of the great challenges for Indigenous Peoples in the 21st century will be to develop practical models to capture, maintain, and pass on traditional knowledge systems and values to future generations. Nothing can replace the sense of continuity that a genuine understanding of traditional tribal knowledge brings. Many communities are working on discrete aspects of culture, such as language or medicine, but it is the entire system of knowledge that needs to be maintained, not just for Indigenous Peoples but for the world at large.
So whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving or looking to make a positive impact at any time of the year, you can give thanks by giving back to indigenous communities in a variety of ways. Here are some resources to get started:
Non-indigenous people can amplify the effort to maintain and pass on valuable tribal wisdom by learning about the native lands you occupy. Use the Native Land app or website to learn which (if any) native territories you live upon. For example, as a New Yorker, I reside on the land of the Munsee Lenape.
You can also visit www.culturalsurvival.org to learn what advocacy for international Indigenous communities looks like and to broaden your perspective.
For stories and interviews about Native American life today, listen to the Pow Wow Life podcast hosted by Paul Gowder.
Appreciate Native art
Nothing can challenge our perceptions and preconceptions quite like a masterful work of art. This roundup features eight Native Artists who challenge popular American History and dismantle problematic cultural stereotypes with their work.
For an even broader perspective, check out these documentaries by Indigenous filmmakers from around the world.
Support Indigenous brands
If you embrace the tradition of gift giving and want to make a sustainable impact with your purchases, check out these indigenously owned and operated companies!
- Eighth Generation: This Seattle-based art and lifestyle brand is owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe. All of their beautiful wool blankets are designed by Native artisans.
- SheNative: This company is on a mission to change the perception of Indigenous women, and to celebrate and empower them. Their minimalist designs make perfect and versatile gifts! SheNative also works directly with Indigenous artisans, suppliers, and designers, and gives 10% of profits to supporting economic growth for Indigenous women.
- B Yellowtail: Their message says it all: “We are a native owned and operated fashion brand and retailer that specializes in storytelling through wearable art.” B Yellowtail also sells face masks with the dual purpose of keeping us safe and decolonizing native people of north America! 100% of the net proceeds go toward supporting Native American Community organizations.
- Séka Hills: A specialty food company operated by a tribe known as the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in Northern California. They offer sustainably farmed products such as wine, olive oil, beef, and more. According to their website, “The tribe looks at decision-making through a lens of good environmental stewardship throughout all of our undertakings, honoring the legacy of our ancestors who lived as part of the landscape by protecting and preserving the natural balance in their environment. Today, with more than 22,000 total acres in production, we own one of the most diverse farming operations in Yolo County and are one of a few tribes with expanding agriculture in California.”
- Indigenous Organic Fair Trade Fashion: A collection of men and women’s fashions that minimizes both environmental impact and exploitative labor. This company expands on Fair Trade principles and disrupts the fast fashion supply chain by prioritizing the well being of local artisans.
Donate to Indigenous Funds
- The First People’s Fund honors and supports Native American artists and culture bearers with entrepreneurial initiatives and community development programs from the individual to the national level.
- The Warrior Women Project is a multifaceted forum for indigenous activism through storytelling. Your donation will support six different initiatives that empower Native women through community-informed research, media, and impact programming.
- NARF or the Native American Rights Fund, is the oldest and largest non-profit legal organization defending Native American rights nationwide. They allocate all resources to the following five priorities:
- Preserve tribal existence
- Protect tribal natural resource
- Protect Native American human rights
- Hold governments accountable to native Americans
- Develop Indian Law and educate the public about Indian laws and issues