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Indigenous Activists and Educators Discuss Thanksgiving, Systemic Injustices at Institute of Politics

Indigenous students, activists, and politicians discussed the roots of Thanksgiving and systemic issues facing Indigenous communities at a virtual panel at the Institute of Politics on Monday.
Indigenous students, activists, and politicians discussed the roots of Thanksgiving and systemic issues facing Indigenous communities at a virtual panel at the Institute of Politics on Monday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Isabella B. Cho and David R. Shaw, Contributing Writers

Indigenous students, activists, and politicians discussed the roots of Thanksgiving and systemic issues facing Indigenous communities at a virtual panel at the Institute of Politics on Monday.

The panel — hosted by the Harvard College Events Board, Natives at Harvard College, the Harvard Political Union, and Harvard University Native American Program — began with a land acknowledgement before shifting to a discussion of Thanksgiving.

Keanu V. Gorman ’22, a member of Natives at Harvard College, opened the conversation with a discussion of the true history of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Rather than a celebratory feast, the gathering of Puritans and Wampanoags was a diplomatic meeting about the Puritans’ ritualistic shooting practices.

“The reason why the Wampanoag showed up to this first Thanksgiving was not because they were invited but because of the shooting practice that was going on,” they said. “They were concerned about the noises that were coming from the encampment, and they decided to come.”

Tara Z. Houska, a tribal attorney and member of the Couchiching First Nation, said she uses Thanksgiving as a “day of action” and education.

She also said some schools still teach a sanitized version of Thanksgiving, featuring “construction paper headdresses,” and said she feels the need to remind people of what actually took place: “a massacre.”

“It's a time that we remind the larger, broader society that the narrative they've been taught is absolutely, unequivocally false,” she said.

Sadada Jackson, a justice educator and consultant, said she spends the day at Plymouth, where she engages in a practice she calls “skillful mourning.”

“This time is a time of holding that history of loss, but also of remembering the ways in which we are resilient,” she said. “It's an offering of a kind of release and letting go of the ongoing trauma and pain that our communities do experience.”

Anna Kate E. Cannon ’21, co-president of Natives at Harvard College, underscored the importance of viewing settler colonialism as a continual issue that is “a structure, not an event.”

“Many of the stories we hear about U.S. history and the things we’re taught in schools about U.S. history are very much tied up in legitimizing settler claims to Native land while ignoring, erasing, and further dispossessing Indigenous peoples of the land that is rightfully ours,” Cannon, a former Crimson magazine editor, said.

Houska said there are numerous examples of “this narrative of dispossession and oppression of Native people” that continue into the present day, like the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and a dearth of healthcare resources, including COVID-19 relief.

“There's so many different examples of what a settler colonial narrative looks like,” she added.

North Dakota State Representative Ruth A. Buffalo added that “years and years of poor policy” has exacerbated Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability to the pandemic.

“We have off-the-chart rates of chronic illness, chronic disease, which make us more susceptible to not surviving COVID-19,” Buffalo said.

The panelists concluded the conversation by reflecting on what it means to be an ally to Indigenous communities.

Pua Case — an advocate for Manaua, a ceremonial rain rock in Hawai’i that risks being obstructed by an 18-story telescope — said it is important for allies to respect “ancestral protocol” and generational knowledge.

“If you're an ally, you step in quietly, you step in softly, you step in respectfully,” Case said. “You watch what's happening, and you learn.”

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