Thanksgiving is celebrated all over the US, with 90 percent of American households marking the historic day with a feast. Americans travel across the country to reconnect with loved ones as winter sets in. Overall, Thanksgiving is a time for bonding between family members and expressing gratitude for the good fortune that the year has brought. With regards to the holidays, schools educate students about the history of Thanksgiving, teaching about the Calvinist Pilgrims and their 66-day journey on the Mayflower to escape the oppressive authority of The Church of England. We also learn about Native American culture and history: the rise and fall of indigenous empires, and the native people that still represent these cultures today. Each year, it is important to remember the struggling Native communities needing our support.
Many reservations in the US face a food and water crisis caused by air pollution and mining waste. Despite the harm to these communities, most Americans often fail to recognize these problems as pressing issues. Americans need to acknowledge current crises involving indigenous people across the country, as well as the importance of Native American culture keeping its strong roots in our society. That is why it is so important to spend time this Thanksgiving spreading awareness about these communities of US citizens, who deserve the privileges that most of us take for granted.
The Native people of America have faced significant adversity since the start of the colonial era, beginning with the enslavement and then the displacement of millions. In 1491, the population of Natives stood at 140 million, but by 1691, over 90 percent — around 130 million — had been lost to slavery, epidemics, and war. Indigenous tribes contain a wealth of culture representing their community despite losing much of it in the past through government-run Christian boarding schools meant to “civilize” Native people through acts of cultural genocide.
While Americans often associate Indigenous people strictly with Thanksgiving or pre-colonial America, it is important to note the contributions these groups have made to American society and the impact they continue to have. For example, Indigenous people were some of the first groups to experiment with early types of vaccinations; a member of the Karuk Tribe recorded that after consuming small amounts of poison oak regularly, their rashes were less severe. Though history credits Alexander Wood, a Scottish doctor, with the invention of syringes, these devices date back to South American tribes, who used bird bones as early syringes capable of cleaning ears and injecting medicine. In the 1980s, the White Mountain Apache Tribe worked with an Indian pediatrician on studies in rehydration, eventually leading to the creation of Pedialyte.
While Native Americans have evidently made positive contributions to American culture, it is crucial to understand their current struggles. According to the Indian Health Service, Native Americans have a life expectancy that is five and a half years less than any other race in America. There are many contributing factors to this, foremost of which is poverty. In 2019, one out of six Native American families lived below the federal poverty line. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Native Americans had an unemployment rate of seven and a half percent. As the pandemic progressed, that rate jumped up to 28.6 percent. Along with poverty, Native Americans also face mental health issues disproportionately. A statistic from Mental Health America shows that the suicide rate for Native Americans between the ages of 15 through 19 is more than double that of White people. Furthermore, because Native Americans are likely to suffer from poverty, they are less likely to or do not have the resources to seek help for their mental health issues, exacerbating the issues posed by suicide in Native communities.
With Thanksgiving approaching, non-Native people need to take active measures like reading, donating to, and discussing these issues, to educate themselves and aid modern-day Natives. Reading accurate and informative literature by or about Native people can be a huge part of this education. Novels like David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Deborah A. Miranda’s Bad Indians are good non-fiction opportunities to learn about the struggles that Native people faced in the previous century and how these tragedies impact them today. Other books like There There and Night of the Living Rez are fictional accounts that still offer education about Native Americans’ history and current reality.
The best and most important way for students to educate themselves, however, is by keeping up with local and state news to learn about the Native issues in your community and explore ways to advocate for these groups to further their cause. Signing petitions and donating to reputable organizations are both effective and simple ways to advocate for Native Americans. So, as you spend your holiday season celebrating and relaxing, also take the time to educate yourself on the Native Americans who appreciated this land first, and continue to live on it today.
(Sources: Advent Health, American Addiction Centers, Goodreads, Government Accountability Office, History.com, Nasa Earth Observatory, National Geographic, Plymouth.org, U.S Census Bureau)