The meaning of Thanksgiving for Native Americans

Posted at 2:49 PM, Nov 23, 2022

Most often when families sit down to share a meal for Thanksgiving, everyone goes around the table saying what they're grateful for. It's a tradition so many hold dear to their heart. As you sit down this year, Native American cultural specialist LaRayne Woster asks that you consider other perspectives.

In elementary school, you may remember being taught that Thanksgiving was a time when pilgrims and Indigenous people sat down to have a feast together. However, Woster says that may not be the full truth.

"Because our traditions are oral and not written down in a diary or a book, they have been discounted in history books and teachings," Woster said. "So, I believe this generation is finding their voice to say 'What really is the truth about Thanksgiving? What really did happen?'"

Woster helps teach the Lakota language at St. Joseph's Indian School and she's an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. She says Thanksgiving is a holiday that brings many mixed emotions to Native American communities.

"To some Native Americans, this holiday is called the day of mourning," Woster said. "And that just relates back to the tribes on the East Coast who were the ones who dealt with the newcomers coming to the New World initially who were killed for their food catches or enslaved."

She says there are other Native American families who celebrate Thanksgiving the mainstream way with turkey, mashed potatoes, and all.

"You could look at it the other way and celebrate that we still do have a lot of our culture," Woster said. "We have our language, we have our songs, we have our celebrations."

Woster says she encourages her students at St. Joseph's Indian School in South Dakota to honor their own ancestor's traditions, celebrating in a way that feels right to them.

"We call it family day in my family," Woster said.

She says she doesn't want people to feel guilty about what happened in history; she just hopes all Americans can approach the holiday with greater sensitivity and understanding, recognizing the unique contributions of Native Americans to our country.

"Acknowledge the land that we are on was tribally our First Nation's land," Woster said. "It didn't belong to the First Nations people, but the people belonged to the land and respected that land enough to only take what they needed, not take any more in how they lived off that land in harmony with everything in nature."