‘The true meaning is kind of hard’: How American Indians in Maryland observe Thanksgiving

Published on: November 22, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 24, 2022 3:58 PM EST

A Native American celebration of food, culture, and heritage took place at the 46th Annual BAIC PowWow at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium on November 19, 2022.

Growing up with an American Indian father and a Polish mother, Rosie Bowen immediately saw how different cultures observed Thanksgiving.

The morning of the holiday, she would go to her American Indian grandmother’s home for dishes eaten by the Lumbee tribe: chicken ‘n pastry, an American Indian dish that consists of flat dough noodles and chicken in a sauce, collard greens, cornbread and fried chicken.

“It was more soulful,” the 43-year-old Rosedale resident said, explaining that with tribes such as the Lumbee, whose tribal headquarters are based in Pembroke, North Carolina, traditional foods reflect the southeastern region where they are mostly concentrated. “My Native paternal grandparents house was very different from going to my Polish grandmother’s house.”

There, not only did she eat Polish cuisine, but they also spent the day celebrating the true origins of the United States, something that was hard for Bowen to stomach given the way Indian Americans were historically treated.

“They [maternal side] observed it as white people in this country. But my mom was clear to say, ‘We have to give thanks to the Indians because we are on their land,’” she said. “We [the American Indian side] treat it as a day of mourning and to remember our ancestors who were colonized during the first Thanksgiving.”

For Maryland’s American Indian population, Thanksgiving can be a complicated — and oftentimes painful — reminder of lost lives, land and culture. Thanksgiving Day commemorates the 1621 celebration of the fall harvests shared by the Wampanoag people to the Plymouth colonists. American Indians believe that the holiday romanticizes the relationship between colonists and the Indigenous people of North America, who were eventually killed and had their land taken over and settled on. And while many American Indians use the day as an opportunity to gather with family, they also reflect on history, and use the time to educate others about the traditions of their diverse tribes from different regions of the country.

Donald Warne, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, views Thanksgiving as a “mixed bag” for American Indians.

“On the happier side of the equation, I think of family coming together. It’s a time to convene and be thankful for the blessings in our lives. I find it really frustrating that the real history of Thanksgiving is not known by broader society,” said Warne, co-director for the Center for Indigenous Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We’re not teaching the origins and relationships between the colonists and indigenous sides. We don’t talk about the brutality, murder and attempts of genocide.”

He added: “It’s frustrating that the real history is glossed over with the commercialization of this holiday.”

Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead — associate professor of communication and African American Studies and founding director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland — has met extensively with various Native Americans for the educational series “Lies Our Teacher Told Us,” which addressed the mistruths taught about Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.

“I’ve never heard the word celebration used. I’ve heard honoring the loss. It’s really a day of mourning for their community. It’s different in Indigenous communities,” Whitehead said. “I’m not even sure [non-American Indian] people are thinking about the lie of Thanksgiving. I think Thanksgiving has evolved into a day of families. Underneath that layer, there is that truth about the land, and the occupied territories, and the Trail of Tears, how they were slaughtered, about what happens on reservations. That doesn’t get shared at the dinner table.”

There are 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the country, and all have different ways of observing Thanksgiving.

“Some say that that day is a national day of mourning. They talk about the massacre of tribes,” she said. “Some people use the day to talk about the English settlers who robbed their graves. They talk about the relentless assault of their culture. Others treat it as a day of remembrance and to mourn openly.”

Even the day after Thanksgiving, Native American Heritage Day, is somewhat controversial in that the holiday is overshadowed by the shopping frenzy that is Black Friday, Whitehead said.

Even though President Barack Obama signed a resolution in 2009 designating the day, only 184 federally recognized American Indian tribes in this country supported the action, she said.

At the 46th Annual Baltimore American Indian Center Pow Wow held at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium recently, some American Indians described Thanksgiving with words such as lies, blood, massacre, complicated, mourning, family and gathering.

“The true meaning is kind of hard,” said James Aunquoe, a Parkville resident who is Kiowa and Chippewa. “I do observe it because of my mother. I was raised Roman Catholic. It’s sad when you learn the truth. I try not to be angry. It’s being sad first and trying to forgive and move on.”

Dennis Seymour, director of the Baltimore American Indian Center and an Eastern Band Cherokee, said: “It’s not my favorite holiday. But I would much rather get rid of the federal holiday recognizing Columbus Day.”

Seymour said that American Indians are invisible to the rest of society. That is why it is important to accurately share the history of their people.

For Lisa Locklear, a Lumbee tribe member who lives in Hamilton, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with her family.

“But we understand the history behind it,” she said. “We are the answer to our ancestor’s prayers.”

There are 9 million American Indian and Alaska Native people in the United States and 9,000 American Indian people in Baltimore, said Warne, citing U.S. Census data.

At one time, the Piscataway tribe was the largest in the Chesapeake region with tens of thousands of people living along the waterways of the region. Tribe members were decimated by colonizers, according to Schirra Gray, one of the 2,000 remaining members of the tribe in Maryland. Now, the majority of the population live in the Southern region of Maryland in Prince George’s and Charles counties, according to Gray.

“It’s part of society and what was done,” he said at Saturday’s Pow Wow, dressed in an ornate feathered headpiece and sky blue accented tribal garb. “Before settlers arrived, there were 100 million native people living throughout North America.”

The types of dishes served by American Indians during Thanksgiving depends on their tribe and region.

For example, Warne said the Lakota people eat corn and bean soup or stew. Buffalo, greater prairie chicken and fish are the proteins served.

Traditional Thanksgiving meals for tribes in the Midwest — where Warne is from — include dishes made from the three sister crops: corn, beans and squash.

“It was a really well-balanced diet,” Warne explained. “Traditional meals consisted of whole foods, not processed. They were a healthy sources of nutrition.”

Current staples for American Indian Thanksgiving Day meals reflect those past food traditions, said Warne, who mentioned grilled squash and wojapi, a dessert that features choke cherries and ground corn meal, as particular favorites.

Many of the Lumbee people in North Carolina worked as sharecroppers and thus the foods they ate reflected the foods on the land they lived, including: chicken, potatoes and collard greens, Bowen said.

“Due to the colonization and following white protocol we have lost a lot of our traditions that might have happened back then. In the South for the Lumbee tribe it’s more Southern. We lost a lot of our tradition,” said Bowen, who splits time living between North Carolina, where she runs a food pantry for homeless people, and Maryland, where she runs her family’s business, Rose’s Bakery in the city’s Northeast Market.

She also pays homage to her North Carolina roots at the bakery by sourcing her sweet potatoes, which she uses to make pies, from that state.

Moving forward by honoring the past

Many Native Americans would like to see more accurate teachings of their histories throughout the year, and not just on Thanksgiving, so that it becomes normalized.

“It’s also about keeping our culture alive,” Locklear said. “We need to honor, remember and commemorate.”

Chanel Wiesner, a Lumbee tribe member who lives in Pittsburgh, makes sure that her children are connected to their American Indian heritage through dance. She and her family performed during the Pow Wow this weekend.

“You have to remember the bad with the good,” she said, adding that Thanksgiving is “complicated.”

Warne said some people may not want to acknowledge the unpleasant history.

“Unfortunately, the truth in history is uncomfortable history. We’ll never get to equity unless we walk through truth,” he said. “We owe it to previous generations. To gloss over it is a disservice and it is disrespectful.”

But he does see positive steps.

More people across the country are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, he said. There is pride that November is Native American Heritage Month.

Whitehead also sees some progress in the way people view Thanksgiving.

“Now is the moment where more conversations are happening and teachers are reclaiming narratives. There is a shift — particularly within younger people — to be more inclusive,” she said. “It is important to make the statement that now more than ever, teachers are concerned to make sure that all voices are being heard. Are we there yet? No, not really. But we’re closer than we were before.”