How do Indigenous people spend Thanksgiving?

Many see Thanksgiving as a time to celebrate peace, shared prosperity, and harmony between Native Americans, Pilgrims and Native Americans.

Each tribe may choose a different Thanksgiving celebration. Many will share their Thanksgiving meal with their family, sharing stories and prayers. Some will go without food for the whole day.

Dennis W. Zotigh considers Thanksgiving a “day of mourning.” Zotigh is an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Winter Clan member and member of Kiowa Gourd Clan. He also descends from Sitting Bear, No Retreat and both the principal war chiefs in the Kiowas. 

According to most Natives Thanksgiving isn’t a time for celebration. Zotigh states that Native Americans, especially in New England, recall this attempt genocide as an important part of their past and are reminded every year at the modern Thanksgiving.

Zotigh works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill to mourn. The Native Americans gather to mourn at Grand Sachem Masasoit, a Wampanoag statue. 

Thanksgiving is really about its rootsThis is a review of what took place 400 years ago during the Plymouth first feast

Tribal citizen Julie Garreau also describes Thanksgiving as “a day of mourning” for her people. Garreau lives in the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, and runs the Cheyenne River Youth Project.

This year, Julie is not celebrating Thanksgiving and is instead organizing an event on Native American Heritage Day called “Thanks for Kids,” which celebrates Native children. Kids on the Cheyenne River reservation can enjoy home-cooked tacos and participate in fun activities.

She has cooked Native foods like pumpkin soup and buffalo roast in the past to honour Indigenous history.

Garreau has also worked with children in the Cheyenne River Youth Project to make wasna, a traditional food of the Plains Indians made from a mixture of dried meat (usually buffalo), dried berries (usually chokecherries) and fat (usually kidney fat or bone marrow) that is pounded together with a mortar and pestle.

Indigenous children in South Dakota learn to make wasna, a traditional food of Plains Indians that includes berries. In this step, they are processing chokecherries

Other years, they have held classes teaching Indigenous children to sew together moccasins.

A child at the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota sews together a moccasin

Joshua Arce, president and CEO of the Partnership with Native Americans, still participates in Thanksgiving but views the holiday as a way to gather with family and celebrate Indigenous culture. He’s a part of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a federally-recognized tribe in Kansas.

“I had a very blended household because my mom’s side of the family is Native American, and my father’s side is Mexican American. Arce says that the family was important because it meant being close to each other. “It’s about the ability to celebrate in many different ways, and the resilience of families.”

Along with a Thanksgiving turkey, Arce’s family will also eat wild rice casseroles, given that wild rice was a staple for Potawatomi tribe of the northern Great Lakes region.

Thanksgiving celebrations are also heavily centered around prayer, which include giving thanks for and remembering relatives that passed before us and putting out prayers for a good fall and winter, especially to stay warm through the winter and have needs met, Arce says.

Like Garreau and Zotigh, Arce also called Thanksgiving “a day of mourning” that creates multigenerational and intergenerational trauma. He associates it with Eurocentric terms that came to dominate Native peoples, like colonization, discovery and manifest destiny.

Thanksgiving is described as a 'day of mourning' for Native Americans

How can we respect Natives?

Garreau states that the best thing people can do for Thanksgiving is to get informed and understand the history.

Garreau makes the observation that Native Americans of South Dakota have tried for a long time to modify school curriculums in order to better reflect Indigenous history. However, they have repeatedly been blocked by the state legislature.

Is it ‘Political Football’ or ‘Mountain Out of a Molehill’? South Dakota officials clash over Indigenous education standards

Arce, Garreau and Arce described Thanksgiving as an harmonious holiday that encourages mutual respect and cooperation. When they learned the full story, and understood the dynamics of colonization and colonization, their adult lives were a shock.

“Thanksgiving, as the United States’ origin story, leaves out painful truths about our nation’s history. Zotigh suggests that children should not be presented with Thanksgiving as something they can enjoy.

Arce and Zotigh acknowledge, however that it may prove too difficult for children to understand the history of Thanksgiving because of the brutality of colonization.

National Geographic’s depiction of Thanksgiving as it really is: Telling the true story of Thanksgiving

Zotigh said, “While it is true that children in elementary schools celebrate Thanksgiving first in class are not old enough to know the truth about Thanksgiving,” Zotigh added.

As part of his work at the Partnership with Native Americans, Arce has also prepared material on its website ( that explains the true history behind Thanksgiving. The lesson plans were created to help children in kindergarten through third grade discuss this sensitively. These lesson plans include appropriate age-appropriate lessons about Native culture, heritage, crafts that are culturally relevant, and book suggestions. They also provide writing prompts and ideas.

Arce points out, too that only 1% of charity giving supports Native causes. He recommends you donate Native causes to Giving Tuesday.

Each tribe has a unique Thanksgiving celebration, but they each take the time and acknowledge the horrors of the past as well as to thank the ancestors.

Giving thanks has always been part of Native Americans’ everyday lives, Zotigh says.

Follow Michelle Shen on Twitter @michelle_shen10. 



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