While many Americans look forward to gathering with friends and family for Thanksgiving, it also marks a day of mourning for many Indigenous people in the country because it commemorates the arrival of settlers in North America — and the oppression and genocide that followed and still exist today.
During his first presidential proclamation, George Washington designated Nov. 26, 1789, as a Day of National Thanksgiving. The next president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation was Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863, invited Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise.”
The American Thanksgiving feasting tradition can be credited to the Pilgrims, who as early as 1621, set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest. At the same time, Thanksgiving originates from the Native philosophy of giving without expecting anything in return. The first Thanksgiving is often portrayed, albeit misleadingly, as a friendly harvest festival where Pilgrims and “Indians” came together to eat and give thanks.
According to the National Museum of the American Indian, the assembly of the Wampanoag Peoples and English settlers, or Pilgrims, in 1621 was focused on political alliances, diplomacy and the pursuit of peace. The Wampanoag Peoples had a long political history of engaging with other Native Nations prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims.
Without help from the Wampanoag Peoples, who shared land, food and knowledge of the environment with the English, the English settlers would not have had a successful harvest that led to the first Thanksgiving — and may not even have survived.
The governor of the Plymouth colony, William Bradford, invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join in the 1621 fall feast. Massasoit arrived with about 90 warriors and brought food including venison, lobster, fish, clams, oysters, eels, corn, squash and maple syrup.
Interactions with European settlers brought accelerated — and oftentimes devastating — changes to the cultures of Native Peoples. In spite of agreements, the English settlers attacked and encroached upon Wampanoag lands.
With the arrival of European settlers brought the arrival of new diseases, which nearly wiped out entire villages. The vast majority of Wampanoag tribal communities were killed in battles that were initiated by colonists to secure land, according to the Wampanoag Tribe website. Throughout New England, an estimated 300,000 Native people died by violence, and even more were displaced.
Native American Heritage Day
While Native culture is not at all materialistic, Native American Heritage Day falls on what is commonly known as “Black Friday.” Black Friday signifies the conclusion of Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Christmas season — or in short, another white Christian holiday.
Black Friday dates back to the 1950s, when Philadelphia police used the term to describe the chaos that ensued the day after Thanksgiving, when many stores still offered sales for shoppers. While Native culture honors the water, the earth and people, Black Friday pushes the opposite of what Native youth are taught to value — capitalist greed, extreme shopping and spending frenzies.
While it seems contradictory to have Black Friday and Native American Heritage Day to both fall on the day after Thanksgiving, former President Barack Obama signed “The Native American Heritage Day Resolution 2009.” The goal was to encourage Americans to observe the day and understand the rich culture, tradition and history of Native Peoples, and to appreciate the contributions that First Americans have made and will continue to make.
Impact of colonization in Seattle-area
The Duwamish Tribe is the host tribe for Seattle, and aboriginal territories include Seattle, Burien, Tukwila, Renton and Redmond. The Duwamish were the first signatories of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 that was signed by Chief Si’ahl, who was chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, and whom the city of Seattle is named after.
Chief Si’ahl and other members of the nation greeted the first European American immigrants when they arrived at Alki Point, in what is now West Seattle, in 1851. Chief Si’ahl worked hard to be protectors and benefactors of the immigrants, and under his leadership, the tribe provided guides, transportation via canoes, and other assistance including providing potatoes from cultivated fields near Renton, which all enabled the immigrants to survive and thrive.
According to the Duwamish Tribe website, the tribe burned sections of forest to promote clearings for their crops, and felled trees for canoes and lumber for their longhouses. This knowledge was shared with the immigrants, and when no cows were available for milk for the Europeans’ children, the tribe showed the immigrants how to use clam juice as a substitute.
The Treaty of Point Elliott was signed on Jan. 22, 1855, near Mukilteo, and created governmental relationships between the Duwamish Tribe and the United States. By 1859, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, which guaranteed hunting and fishing rights, and reservations to all tribes represented by the Native signers.
In return for a reservation and the other benefits promised by the U.S. government, the Duwamish exchanged over 54,000 acres of their homeland. Immigrants quickly violated the treaty, which triggered a series of Native rebellions from 1855-1858, which are referred to as the “Indian War.” During the rebellions, Chief Si’ahl helped protect a small group of settlers from the attacks by other Native warriors in what became the City of Seattle.
U.S. Indian Agent Thomas Paige recommended to the U.S. government in 1866 that a reservation be established for the Duwamish Tribe, but immigrants and Seattle civic leaders petitioned against a Duwamish reservation near the city of Seattle. The petition blocked any reservation being established for the Duwamish.
“The promise of a Duwamish reservation and all of the other Treaty promises made by the United States government to the Duwamish over 150 years ago in the Treaty of Point Elliott have never been kept,” reads a statement from the Duwamish Tribe website.
Ballast Island became a year-round residence by 1885, and was created when sailing ships dumped their ballast of boulders, and other materials, at Seattle’s waterfront prior to taking supplies to other ports.
The Duwamish were forced from their longhouses in the new city of Seattle, and other parts of their homeland. The U.S. Army and other whites burned longhouses to prevent the Duwamish from returning to their traditional homeland.
Many didn’t want to relocate to live with traditional enemies at reservations built far away from their ancestral villages and burial grounds, so for several years, they were allowed to live on Ballast Island, a bleak parcel of land that lacked fresh water and other vital resources. By the beginning of World War I in 1917, Ballast Island became too valuable to the settlers, and the Duwamish were exiled.
The closest reservation to Seattle is the Tulalip Reservation, located north of Everett and the Snohomish River, and west of Marysville. It is a federally recognized tribe.
The Duwamish Tribe doesn’t benefit from federal recognition. In 1971, 1,000 Duwamish tribal members were paid $64 each for their land, which translates to $64,000 for the 54,000 acres of land.
The tribe worked hard to raise money to buy back their own territory to build the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in 2008, located at 4705 W. Marginal Way SW in Seattle. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center opened in 2009, and serves as the tribe’s governmental, economic and cultural hub, and hosts thousands of tribal and non-tribal visitors each year.
While many tribal members continue to reside in King and Kitsap counties today, dispersed tribal members continued to maintain communal ties. There are 712 Duwamish Tribe members who mostly live in the Seattle area.
“We sacrificed our land to make the City of Seattle a beautiful reality,” said Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe. “We are still waiting for our justice.”
Shop Native this season
While Thanksgiving is considered a time of celebration for many, it is an opportunity for Native Peoples to reflect on collective history and celebrate the beauty, strength and resilience of Native tribes in North America.
Thanksgiving is a time to remember the generosity of the Wampanoag Peoples to the helpless settlers; a time to remember the hundreds of thousands of Natives who were murdered at the hands of colonists and the genocide of whole tribes; and a time to remember the vibrant and powerful Native descendants, families and communities that persist to this day throughout our culture and our country.
This Thanksgiving, individuals can decolonize their meals by bringing Native dishes to the dinner table. The Duwamish Tribe’s main sources of food historically came from the water and include salmon, fish, shellfish, ducks, deer, elk, bears, rabbits, sprouts, nuts, berries and crabapples.
Birch Basket Catering is a Native-owned catering company that specializes in pre colonial menus, and indigenous ingredients that are paired with both traditional and modern techniques. Owner Hillel Echo-Hawk (Pawnee and Athabaskan) is dedicated to empowering Indigenous Peoples by increasing knowledge of and access to traditional diets and foods. Birch Basket Catering is offering a Thanksgiving tasting menu that includes corn soup; wild rice with wild Alaskan blueberries and maple syrup; and roasted sweet potatoes with red potatoes and pecan with a reduced apple cider glaze; among others.
Off the Rez is Seattle’s first Native food truck that also offers catering and a cafe. It’s owned by couple Mark McConnell and Cecilia Rikard, who focus heavily on handmade Blackfeet fry bread recipes and Native tacos. Off the Rez Cafe is located at the Burke Museum in Seattle, and food truck locations and times can be found on their website.
Another way to support Indigenous Peoples is by purchasing from Native-owned brands, such as Eighth Generation, a Seattle-based art and lifestyle brand that is owned by the Snoqualmie Tribe. It was founded in 2008 when Louie Gong (Nooksack), an artist, activist and educator widely known for merging traditional Coast Salish art with influences from the urban environment, began customizing shoes in his living room.
Now, Eighth Generation is the first Native-owned company to ever produce wool blankets. The company only works with authentic Natives, such as Native Americans, First Nations, or Indigenous artists. When customers purchase products, they are directly supporting the Native artist who designed the product. Eighth Generation offers home goods and gifts, drinkware, jewelry, scarves and pillows, among others.
Chief Seattle Club’s Native Works features handmade jewelry and 100% of the proceeds go toward the club’s work to provide meals, mental healthcare and housing referrals to Seattle’s urban Native population.
Taking time to self educate and visit the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center is another crucial step in supporting Natives. The Center is free and open to the public Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can explore a historical exhibit space, Native art gallery and Native gift shop.
The Duwamish Tribe also encourages people who live and work in the Seattle area to make rent payments to the tribe due to not being justly compensated for their land, resources and livelihood. To stand in solidarity with First Peoples of this land, individuals can pay Real Rent, with funds going directly to Duwamish Tribal Services, which support the revival of Duwamish culture and the vitality o the tribe.