Why Some Native Americans Can Laugh About Thanksgiving

PHOTO: Bobby Wilson, a member of the Native American comedy group the 1491s says his family celebrates Thanksgiving, but with a healthy dose of cynicism.

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This week, little boys and little girls around the country will don stereotypical pilgrim and Native American costumes to act out the happy story of the first Thanksgiving harvest. But some Native Americans don't remember it as fondly.

According to Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, an assistant professor who teaches Native American history at Yale University, Thanksgiving is "problematic" in part because the holiday "is predicated on the forceful appropriation of American Indian people's homelands and the devastation of tribal nations." She says that it is with this irony in mind that some in the Native American community jokingly refer to Thanksgiving as "You're Welcome Day." Still other American Indians call it "Thanks-taking Day."

Humor is a tool which many in the Native American community use to push back against forms of oppression. On Thanksgiving especially, this "Indian humor" is out in full force, according to Sterlin Harjo, a member of the 1491s, a Native American comedy troupe.

"It's easier to say something, when you're making somebody laugh, rather than punching them in the face," Harjo said. "You can kill people with kindness. That's what we're doing -- killing people," he joked.

The 1491s describe themselves as "a gaggle of Indians chock full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire." But they also classify themselves as activists. The group has a sizeable following, with more than 100,000 views on their most popular YouTube videos. Their work sometimes parodies popular depictions of Native American culture, like in their latest video in which the 1491s are mostly-naked and auditioning to be part of Twilight's wolf pack.

In reality, Harjo, and his fellow 1491ers Ryan Redcorn, Dallas Goldtooth, Migizi Pensoneau, and Bobby Wilson, like many Native Americans, get together with family on the holiday and eat lots of food.

"My Indian family celebrates Thanksgiving and there's no one really upset about it," Wilson said. "There's a layer of jokes that go on, about some of the ridiculous depictions of Indians, but most people just think of it as a good time for us to get together and eat and make lots of Pilgrim jokes."

Some members of the 1491s also said they don't overtly associate the holiday with Native Americans in the way that many non-Natives do. Many school children learn about a poorly-documented 1621 harvest celebration between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth in present day Massachusetts. But Mt. Pleasant says that the story is likely more mythology than historical fact at this point, and it represents a very small part of the history of Native people.

Not everyone is aware of that, of course. In fact, Harjo recalled being at a white friend's house for Thanksgiving dinner when he felt there was some awkwardness in the room.

"I kept wondering why the air was so weird," he said. "And finally it dawned on me that they were all thinking about the First Thanksgiving."

The 1491s also uses their platforms to circulate depictions of Native Americans they find offensive during Halloween and Thanksgiving, especially. Most recently, the group posted a flier on their Facebook page for a Thanksgiving Happy Hour at a bar in Washington, D.C., that reads, "PARTY LIKE A PILGRIM, DRINK LIKE AN INDIAN" with a cartoon of a Native American and Pilgrim jumping in the air. The bar was inundated with angry comments on their Facebook page, and the poster has since been removed from their website and Facebook page.

At its most basic level, the Thanksgiving holiday falls in line with a core belief in many Native American communities that giving thanks is something worth doing all of the time. That's why some find it odd that the concept is celebrated just one day a year by most Americans. Mt. Pleasant, for example, whose father is Tuscarora, one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee, says that "thankfulness is a guiding principle for Haudenosaunee people."

"When I think of the Thanksgiving holiday, one of the things I think about is the important differences between the way Haudenosaunee people embrace thankfulness versus the ways American society at large addresses this concept," she said.

Harjo, who goes over to white friends' houses on Thanksgiving, also has mixed feelings about the holiday.

"Because we're Indian, we give thanks every day, not just one day a year," he said. "But white people sure do cook some good food," he joked.

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