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American Mythic Origins, Thanksgiving, Mascots and the Oregon Trail

Over the last week I have taped at least two shows for the radio about my thoughts about Thanksgiving. Suddenly everyone wants to know what “Natives” think about this holiday. I think its a reaction to resent activities around Native American month and Indigenous People’s days. Indigenous people’s days have now become a big social movement with many cities moving to eliminate Columbus Day, and institute an Indigenous day of recognition in its place. This was a movement I was in the middle of in the 1990s at the University of Oregon, and more recently worked last year to begin a similar effort in Salem Oregon. Apparent lack of interest from the Native community in the state capital made me temporarily abandon the effort.

But, Thanksgiving is the beginning of all of the resistance movements. Thanksgiving has been identified for decades as being an American mythology. The idea that the pilgrims and Indians sat down together and shared a meal was just not possible in the 16th century. These pilgrims were those cast out of England for being too religiously conservative and there are no indications that they treated Native peoples, the savages godless Wanapoegs of the east coast with any semblance of respect or equality. It is likely true that the tribes taught the pilgrims how to grow their crops, the Indian corn and squashes. This is true to native culture to look after their neighbors in the community in times of need. It is also quite likely that Native peoples would have invited these white people to share a meal with them, this too is a cultural norm within tribes, to respect and honor your neighbors by giving what you have. However, these white Christians were too selfish to share of their own food to have invited Native people, especially godless savages. Natives were not even seen as real people as they did not believe in the same god that Christians did, have the same value systems, nor lived in “civilized” lifestyles.

Its much more likely that the Thanksgiving “story” is a American mythology, invented to capture the spirit of Native culture, of the “giveaway” and amalgamate it with the beginnings of the white people in America. There are some people who even see Thanksgiving as the beginning of “America” when in reality the pilgrims happened some 300 years before. But that idea may have merit in terms of the spirit of the holiday, the spirit of giveaway, of welcoming of anyone to your table. In actual practice most Americans do not allow just anyone to their table, and they usually try to limit the meal to only immediate family. That is my experience.

Americans like to be seen as a giving people, but in actual practice they are very selfish, especially in the year 2017. In other places, I have heard white Americans called the “stingy people”, or “eaters of the fat”, meaning that they do not give away their property to anyone and would rather hoard it than give it to someone who could make better use of it.

The historicism of Thanksgiving is too much an American mythology to be believed. Yet schools across the nation teach about this Thanksgiving myth by having their students dress as Pilgrims and Indians and replicate this spirit of giving. The whole bleached and whitewashed educational drama stands in stark contrast to how actual Native people are treated and have been treated through the history of “America.” Wars, death, diseases, genocide, treaties, reservation, removal, assimilation, and many other treatments do not fit the public school educational narrative, but it is the reality for all Native tribes. Tribal peoples are inter-generationally traumatized by the horrendous effects of colonization and imperialization of their lands, while school children, many of them of Native descent, learn about how wonderful the pilgrims were to allow the Indians to sit down with them at Thanksgiving.

For many Native peoples, Thanksgiving, is a symbol of the beginning of the colonization of their lands, of the attempted genocide of their people and of the loss of their lands, and this leads to why we are oppressed today. In many ways, Native peoples are strangers in their own lands, dissociated due to hundreds of years of racist and genocidal treatment on the part of peoples out of Europe.  A treatment which has not ended. Native peoples have no rights to protect themselves from pollution, and protect their lands and archaeological resources from destruction (see noDAPL), and just this past month (October 2017) news came from the Nation’s capitol that the promised houses for the people of Celilo are not going to be built. The US is reneging on a promise and agreement made some 60 years ago over the loss of The Dalles fishing area of the Columbia.

Americans have a habit of mythologizing the past. I believe they desire stronger ties to this land. They crave a deep, and spiritual relationship with this place, and many adopt native philosophies in their quest for that relationship.  This “adoption” presents itself in many ways, native people call much of it culture appropriation. In its most extreme form, native forms of art, craft, life-ways, and culture are made, taken, and sold by non-native people as their own.  Some people even call themselves “native” of their state. Native Oregonians are Native people, not recently arrived settlers.

Another form of this is Native mascots. Its unclear exactly when Native mascots began, but I have written my own thoughts about this in other essays, and I believe that names of native mascots, many, did begin as a form of honoring to Native people. American sports did not really get going in schools and professionally until the beginning of the 20th century. In the early decades of the 20th century, Native athletes like Jim Thorpe energizing and captured the imagination of many Americans. These first decades were right after a series of Indian Wars in the west (Nez Perce, Modoc) when Americans saw how valiantly Natives fought for their rights. Some tribes, and tribal leaders became cultural heroes. Men like Chief Joseph, and Geronimo became celebrities, as even though they had fought against the American cavalry, they had fought honorably for their rights and lands. Average Americans could identify with this powerlessness, as land was hard to hold onto, and they had little rights in American societies over powerful corporations and industries like the Railroads, Cattle Barons, Sugar Barons, and the like. So these Americans sought to capture that fighting spirit against the government and against the power structures of society and named many teams as Indians, Braves, Warriors, etc. But today, the present American peoples have lost that history and understanding of what their mascot represents, and they now use and abuse Native Mascots in horrible ways, while teaching very little about American Indian culture and history in their schools. It is no longer honorable to use the mascots.

Oregon has its own mythologies. In other essays I have pointed out how the origin of the state has even been mythologized.  Most histories of the state into the 1950s either ignored native peoples or made them a  footnote to history. Some histories were heavily religious and espoused the saving of Native peoples by the pioneers who brought the bible and their faith (see histories written by religious leaders and biographies of religious leaders). Other histories, were closer to to historical fiction, and fantasized that Native peoples welcomed and helped the pioneers come to Oregon, and once the state was formed, those that helped them and assimilated became “white” (Bridge of the Gods, Balch). Balch’s book is noted to have been a fiction, but was taught as fact in school districts because it presented a favorable narrative of the formation of Oregon.

Overall, most histories simply ignored the Native contribution to Oregon in favor of the history of the pioneers on the Oregon trail, and the wondrous exploration of Lewis and Clark. And in fact, for perhaps 50 years, the Oregon trail and Lewis and Clark educational units were taught as the Native history units in our public schools.

About seven years ago, my own children were attending the same elementary school I attended in the 1970s in Salem Oregon. Their Native education consisted of either the kids making working covered wagons which they rolled around their school in the semblance of  a wagon train, or making models of native houses from various cultures. My kids really got into these projects. The second project we even helped with, as it was the least disagreeable project to make a model of a Native longhouse. But we really had problems with the covered wagon model, which the teacher did not understand. We had our kid make instead a model of a Chinook Canoe, which we mounted on a rolling cart. He dutifully rolled his canoe around the school in line with the covered wagons. Reportedly, the students loved the canoe and the teacher grew to accept it.

There are other  more accurate narratives that teachers can teach in the classroom. Nearly every tribe now has produced alternative curriculum and there is much free on the internet. It is still a mystery as to why the same mythologies are being taught as history when there are much better histories that can be taught. Perhaps Lewis and Clark, and Oregon Trail in education, still fulfills that need to see that the formation of this place was a positive experience for everyone. Perhaps the Thanksgiving holiday serves that same need for American society, that America is exceptional because its wonderful origin. I like the holiday because it fulfills my need for Marionberry pie,


I have not studied the history of the holidays mentioned, nor scholarship about them. all mistakes are my own.


Categories: education Native Issues Oral History Personal History Uncategorized

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Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD

PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.

I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.

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