What does Thanksgiving mean to our family with Indigenous roots?

Written by Donna Richey, Kiowa – CIS of Mid-America Tribal Services Director

The smell of rolls baking, the sound of gravy bubbling, and the sight of the moist turkey in a house full of family and friends is a common occurrence in homes both indigenous and non-indigenous across the nation. This family-centered gratitude practice is a favorite family tradition in our household. Being a tribal member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, a mother, and an educator, it’s so vital for me to hand down knowledge.

Donna Richey, third from the left, with her daughters.

Although we aren’t celebrating our survival as colonists, or the antiquated table of Pilgrims and Indians, we do acknowledge the gratitude of harvest, of things provided, and state that while my tribe was never an agricultural people, we were nomadic, following the hunt and trading with agrarian Indigenous peoples. In our house, that is a small recognition because we are not people of the past. We are the contemporary inheritance of resiliency, of survival.

While the arrival of settlers and the colonization of the Americas is part of American history, it’s essential to bring to light the whole record from all perspectives of colonization and the reality that it has included lifetimes of oppression, genocide, and theft of land. Many people see this recognition of a celebrated national holiday as a day to honor or mourn the loss of those ancestors and an entire way of life.

At our table, the servings may extend beyond the traditional American thanksgiving menu, blending my husband’s Scottish-Irish descent with our Indian. Corn, stewed or boiled meat, fry bread, and beans are a common family feast for us local southwest Oklahoma tribes. Around the table, we honor and show gratitude for the people of the past who placed us here. We also give thanks to what the future holds for our people, especially my Kiowa-Scottish-Irish daughters. 

During my Thanksgiving holiday, I leave the legacy of what my family loves to do: teasing, sharing memories, breaking bread together, and laughing. I leave the legacy of sharing knowledge about my people and recognizing contemporary Kiowa people and other Indigenous tribes and nations. I am leaving the legacy of flipping the other side of the coin to see what is there instead of always learning only one side of history. I leave the legacy of showing the world that little Indian girls grow up to get degrees to teach, be doctors, dentists, and veterinarians (like in my home). 

As you celebrate the holiday, remember to honor this country’s full history, including the sacrifices of the original land-dwellers and what they have persevered.

If you are interested in how to best honor and recognize Indigenous peoples, please consider: 

  • Acknowledging the origin and the reason why Native Americans may not celebrate this holiday as others do.
  • Recognize that Indians are not the past when using resources, images, and sites. We are contemporary people, we are still here, and we still keep our ancestors’ traditions.
  • Land acknowledgment means giving honor to the ancestral peoples that inhabit that land long before colonization. Our culture, language, beliefs, and traditions are all tied to the land that we inhabited. Also, recognize that most Modern Tribal Nations, headquarters, or reservations are not in the original land areas of those peoples.
  • Learn about the people whose land you live on and the deep history of your community. More than just when your town was established, but the history and its people before that.
  • In a small state like Oklahoma, there are 39 federally recognized tribes. Know that all indigenous peoples across our great nation are diverse in language, culture, traditions, stories, values, beliefs. One single Native American culture does not exist.
  • We have a dependency on all interrelationships between other humans, animals, the sky, water, and earth and know that they all rely on one another – when you do good for one, it connects to everything else.

Want more information on this topic? Check out the following resources.

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Everyone’s History Matters

American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving