7 thoughtful ways to be an ally to Native Americans on Thanksgiving (and beyond)
Hualapai tribal dancers gather at the Hualapai Reservation at the Grand Canyon in Arizona in 2007.
The story behind Thanksgiving is one that has been twisted into fairy tale.
The real history of Thanksgiving is one of disease and enslavement demolishing indigenous populations. Europeans came to what is now the state of Connecticut and killed 700 indigenous people during their annual Green Corn Festival, which was their Thanksgiving, in 1637.
The slaughter, according to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time of the killings, called for a true “day of Thanksgiving.”
Dr. Mishuana Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, tellsMashable that Thanksgiving has a dual meaning, making the holiday complex. While its history is rooted in harm and murder, Goeman, who is the director of American Indian Studies Research Center at UCLA, also says the Thanksgiving Address for Haudenosaunee people had important meaning within the community long before "the stealing and rape of North America was even a glint in Europeans’ eyes."
It's an uncomfortable narrative that is far from what we're used to hearing. But we have an obligation to recognize that history, and work to support indigenous populations who still live with that history.
“We are still here. We live among you
“We are still here. We live among you," Denise Desiderio, Sappony,
tells Mashable. Desiderio is the policy director ofNational Congress of American Indians. "But that doesn’t mean we lose our culture. That doesn’t mean we lose our languages. That doesn’t mean we lose our history."
November, which is Native American Heritage Month, is brimming with opportunities to think about and meaningfully support indigenous populations. Here are seven ways to support Native communities and have an impact.
1. Take time to learn the indigenous history of where you live.
If you're not Native American, it’s important to acknowledge that you are living on borrowed land.
“We are the first people,” Desiderio says. “I don’t want that to get lost. We truly were the first people on these lands, and we want to make sure that history and culture is maintained.”
Desiderio says anyone looking to support Native American populations first needs to become informed about how indigenous tribes have impacted their current location.
“Learn history — and do not presume you know the answers,” Goeman adds.
2. Learn about the lives of Native populations through an indigenous lens.
Too often, the history of Native American populations is filtered and presented through a white lens. That bias, and the culture of ignoring indigenous perspectives, is harmful.
Though the narratives of indigenous people have historically been controlled and regulated, many Native Americans are claiming the right to tell their own stories.
Seek out publications focusing on Native populations, likeNative Peoples magazine, for current coverage of issues impacting indigenous communities. You can also read works by Native American authors who write about their own experiences and histories.
3. Support Native American history and celebrate culture respectfully.
Native American influence has long infiltrated pop culture, but especially within the past few years. Desiderio calls indigenous populations a “population of stereotypes,” referring to the way culture is recycled and filtered for mass consumption.
Most of the time, this influence can be considered cultural appropriation — an empty theft of indigenous culture that lacks authenticity or respect.
If you want to celebrate — not appropriate — indigenous culture, seek ways to responsibly engage. If you find yourself loving current fashion trends that lean toward appropriation, find indigenous designers who create authentic Native fashions. If art is your thing, seek out genuine and responsible celebrations of Native American culture by Native artists.
When engaging with culture, always question your motives and put in the work to be respectful, appreciative and critical.
4. Support organizations advocating for Native American communities.
There are many long-standing organizations doing comprehensive and important advocacy work for indigenous communities, yet they often go unrecognized. Organizations such as the National Indian Education Association and theNational Indian Health Board are especially notable, working in areas where inequality is felt most. Broader organizations like the National Congress of American Indians engage in policy and advocacy work, especially focusing on building up data to better serve indigenous populations.
Whichever organization you choose to support, it's especially important to seek out groups under indigenous leadership, which shows they value the knowledge, experience and voice of those they are hoping to represent.
In other words, as Desiderio says: “Trust the Indians to know about the Indians.”
5. Learn about inequalities that still exist within indigenous communities.
Indigenous communities face major inequalities daily. Native Americans have higher rates of alcohol abuse, suicide and unintentional injuries than the general population, for example, but these health disparities are only the beginning of inequalities tribes face across the country.
Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault in their lifetime compared to all other races, while Native American youth have the lowest high school graduation rates of any racial group.
Meanwhile,economic inequality makes indigenous communities the poorest in the country.
“We are sometimes referred to as the Asterisk Nation because our data doesn’t actually penetrate on a national scale, even though we have these disparities,” Desiderio says. “We don’t often register.”
The only way to work to undo inequalities is to learn about them first, so educate yourself on the factors at play — then do something about them.
6. Support the needs of your local tribes.
With inequality comes the need to address it. Local tribes don't just need your awareness — they need your action.
The only way to have a meaningful impact is to let local tribes determine where your advocacy and activism is most helpful, by defining what your allyship can mean. This is especially important because Native American populations are historically small, accounting for just 1.2% of the population.
“We often don’t have the voice that other groups have when it comes to policy and government,” Desiderio says. “So even people saying, ‘I can help you advocate on this issue,’ is huge. The relationship building is key.”
To find local tribes near you, visit here.
Rule No. 1 when it comes to being an ally: Stop talking and listen.
Desiderio emphasizes that hearing the thoughts, histories and concerns of indigenous populations is something that is rarely done. You can change that by taking notice and working to actively listen.
“Lift up our voice,” she says. “Through that, it helps lift up our people.”
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