Native Artists Reflect on the Legacy of Thanksgiving

For most non-Native people in the United States, the meaning behind modern-day Thanksgiving appears to be far removed from the original iterations of the early 1600’s. But beneath our hot plates of green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and parched shreds of turkey meat lie the insidious legacies of the whitewashed, hyper-sanitized colonial holiday. This year, Hyperallergic asked five Indigenous visual artists what we should be reflecting on and how we can uplift Indigenous voices at this time of year in an effort to decolonize the holiday.

Tayler Gutierrez, the mixed Cherokee artist behind ‘Kamama Beadwork in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says we need to reflect on the history of the land and the Indigenous peoples who are its original caretakers.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge the history of the holiday — and while the truth is, it’s a dark history, in order to create a better future, it needs to be taught so that we can continue to raise awareness about issues that tribes are continuing to face today,” Gutierrez said. “So when families are going around the table and saying one thing they are grateful for, they could also talk about one thing they want to do to give back to Mother Earth or one thing they want to do to support the tribes in their area.”

An example of Tayler Gutierrez’s beadwork accessories that she sells on ‘Kamama Beadwork (photo courtesy the artist)

As Gutierrez mentioned, Indigenous communities often maintain a harmonious and protective relationship with the land. Recent pushes for prioritizing Indigenous land stewardship in light of excessive toxins and climate change impacting our environment include but are not limited to protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Landback initiative.

“When we connect with Mother Earth, we connect to each other,” Gutierrez concluded, saying that we should prioritize giving back to our planet. She also noted that it’s meaningful to support Native businesses and economies, learn more about the Indigenous populations in our specific regions, and sign the petition to protect the Indian Child Welfare Act that is currently at risk of being overturned.

Frank Buffalo Hyde, a mixed-media Onondaga artist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says the “holiday” is the perfect time to reflect on the survival of rich cultures amidst what he considers an “unprecedented Indigenous renaissance” across art, literature, and science.

“Everyone has a beginning and ours is here in North America before the beginning of time and well before contact,” Hyde told Hyperallergic. “It’s a time to continue the conversation of what has transpired in regards to Indigenous people and the progress we have maintained in sustaining our communities.”

“We can amplify these ideas by looking further to the voices of those redefining the preconceived notions of what Native America is,” Hyde continued. “And not regurgitating the flavor of the month trendy opportunists who profit while jumping from cause to cause. Revolution is a daily practice — a life choice. Not a selfie at a protest.” 

Frank Buffalo Hyde, “Meta Dancer” (2022), acrylic on canvas, 30 inches x 40 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara/Lakota), a multidisciplinary installation and performance artist based in New Mexico, emphasized that we must reflect on Indigenous prosperity and sovereignty year-round. “In this Nation we need to acknowledge that there can be no true justice on stolen land,” he told Hyperallergic.

“Think about the land on which you occupy, how you can support its sovereignty; think about Indigenous people, our deep time connection to place and the complexity in the 500+ nations that have thrived on this continent before you, and continue to do so,” he continued, urging us to recognize what we owe to the original caretakers of the land.

“Think about Indigenous people not only in this sanctioned time, but every day. Understand that the perpetuation of Thanksgiving is a colonial myth, enacted to satiate the guilty conscience of the American dream,” Luger continued. “Think about the contribution of Indigenous knowledge to your life beyond the American myth which you have been complacent to. Also think about the food you are eating and your families love, but for real.”

Cannupa Hanska Luger, “This Is Not A Snake / The One Who Checks & The One Who Balances” (2017–2020) (photo by Craig Smith for Heard Museum, 2020; image courtesy the artist)

Luger stressed that everyone has a duty to chip away at the legacies of colonialism that continue to impact the nation. “As Americans, you have a responsibility to reach out to the living communities of Indigenous People, to support our communities with your time, manual labor and resources, creating relationships and true solidarity, not only during this time of year, but any day,” he stated.

“Do something tangible and supportive for Indigenous communities and actively work to dismantle colonialism where you are, he said. “Educate yourself so that Indigenous communities do not have to continue to do this type of labor in telling you how to be a good relative to our people and this earth.”

Cara Romero, “Indian Canyon” (2019) featuring Kiyanni Williams before sunrise at Indian Canyon (© Cara Romero; courtesy the artist)

Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero echoed Luger’s calls by highlighting how Westward expansion, colonialism, and genocide have their claws deep in our nation.

“It has affected every single Native person living today,” Romero wrote to Hyperallergic. “During this time of year, Native kids face racism in schools and media. So this Thanksgiving think about learning the real history of Thanksgiving, learn about the Native community in your region, give thanks and remember their sacrifice, learn about what it means to decolonize your Thanksgiving traditions, decolonize your minds, your bodies, and be better allies.”

Sky Hopinka, still from “I’LL REMEMBER YOU AS YOU WERE, NOT AS YOU’LL BECOME” (2016) (image courtesy the artist)

Sky Hopinka, a 2022 MacArthur Fellow and filmmaker of the Ho-Chunk Nation, had a poignant statement about reconciling with the darker elements that come with Thanksgiving. “Sometimes, people don’t want to think about things that are sad or depressing on a holiday that’s allegedly about giving thanks — but I’d argue that if you don’t understand what was lost, given, taken, stolen and sacrificed, then you don’t understand what it means to be thankful,” he said.

Hopinka also reiterated Luger’s point, stating that Indigenous voices are “just as loud in the spring as they are in the fall.”

“Native Peoples are all around you and it’s best to surrender those essentialized ideas of who we are, what we look like, where we live, and how we talk,” he advised. “Lend an ear, lend a hand, make space, and seek out the questions you should be asking.”

Mildred K. Pearson

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