'A way of life': Oklahoma tribes celebrate Thanksgiving despite holiday's false narrative

Every year, on the last Thursday of November, Alvin Deer’s family members would fill his home while traditional Creek foods like the sour corn drink osafke and blue corn bread were prepared to go along with their Thanksgiving meal. 

“We always came together as one big family,” Deer, a 79-year-old Kiowa and Creek man, recalled. "They'd be in every room, plus a bedroom and my office." 

While his family hasn't been able to gather so widely since the pandemic, Deer said Thanksgiving has always been a day his family has observed.

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The Rev. Alvin Deer's grandchildren gather on his front porch during a Thanksgiving celebration in 2019.

Not to celebrate the myth — of a friendship between the English “Pilgrims” and the Wampanoag people — that has been perpetuated around the holiday, but rather to simply be together and be thankful for what they had, he said. 

On Thanksgiving and throughout the year, Deer said food has played an important role in bringing his family and friends together. He said he will always remember his Creek grandmother spending the afternoons cooking just in case anyone came over. 

"Thanksgiving was a way of life,” Deer said. “We celebrated Thanksgiving Day, that last Thursday in November, because we were Americanized. But we had our own thanksgivings that went on all year long." 

The Rev. Alvin Deer's table is filled with food during a Thanksgiving celebration in 2019.

History of Thanksgiving

Americans are traditionally taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, when the Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth, Massachusetts, invited the Wampanoag to a harvest feast to thank them for their help in planting crops.  

According to the Mashpee Wampanoag — one of three Wampanoag tribes remaining out of the original 69 — tribe members were not invited but showed up later, possibly after hearing recreational gunfire and believing they needed to aid the Pilgrims. 

More than 160 years later, President George Washington declared Nov. 26, 1789, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving itself was not celebrated annually until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the Union Army’s victory at Gettysburg.

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There was no mention of Pilgrims in either of these holiday declarations.

In 1970, Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James began the National Day of Mourning, in which Native Americans and supporters gather each year on Thanksgiving Day to mourn the genocide of indigenous people and the theft of their lands. 

“Some of our families call it Thankstaking instead of Thanksgiving, because of the enactment of taking land, taking everything,” said Cornel Pewewardy, vice-chair of the Comanche Business Committee, the governing body of the southwest Oklahoma tribe. He is also a longtime educator.

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Today, Oklahoma’s tribal nations mark the holiday in diverse ways. Many Oklahoma tribes offer employees paid time off for both Thanksgiving as well as the following day, which is recognized as Native American Heritage Day.

The Apache in southwest Oklahoma offered elders a drive-through meal. The Eastern Shawnee in northeast Oklahoma provided gift cards to some families to buy food. The Otoe-Missouria in north central Oklahoma gave turkeys to elders. 

“In my family, I remind them that we are not celebrating the colonialism, we are just celebrating to be together like we did back in the days,” said Jake Tiger, a cultural specialist for his tribe, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. 

Kelli Mosteller, director of the Citizen Potawatomi Cultural Heritage Center, explains how her tribe used this basket to capture fish in their Great Lakes homeland.

Tribes held harvest feasts ‘long before Europeans came here’ 

The narrative that Indigenous groups and settlers united in peace and friendship to collaborate is not historically accurate, said Dr. Kelli Mosteller, who directs the Citizen Potawatomi Cultural Heritage Center. She also belongs to the tribe, which is based near Shawnee. 

“All of the people who came over and colonized this continent came with an agenda,” she said. “They came over with the agenda of taking and settling the land and the resources here for themselves.” 

The mainstream narrative of Thanksgiving emerged as Native people were being forced from their homelands, particularly in the eastern U.S. The Citizen Potawatomi were forced from the Great Lakes region of southern Michigan and northern Indiana to Kansas. The federal government relocated the community again to Indian Territory, which is known today as Oklahoma. The tribe was promised land east of Oklahoma City, around what is now Shawnee. 

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A sketch is shown of a mass taking place for children who died during the Citizen Potawatomi Nation's forced removal from their Great Lakes homeland to Kansas.

The federal government opened the tribe’s land to white settlers as part of a land run in 1891. Mosteller believes Potawatomi families began recognizing the Thanksgiving holiday over the next decades as intermarriage became more common.  

Thanksgiving meals are an extension of the tribe’s longtime practices, Mosteller said. Traditionally, Potawatomi communities gathered in the fall to give gratitude for a bountiful harvest and prepare for the long winter ahead. It was the final time of the year when a large group came together before breaking off into smaller camps.

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Many Potawatomi families still host large gatherings to celebrate the changing of the seasons, Mosteller said. The feasts are “absolutely something we passed down since long before Europeans came here.”

Harvest celebrations have also been passed down among Seminole communities and families, said Ben Yahola, who is Seminole. He works in his tribe’s historic preservation office based in Wewoka. 

The celebrations, which include a traditional game and a feast, have no set date, Yahola said. Family groups often plan the celebrations to occur before the first frost.  

Expressing Seminole culture through gatherings and ceremonies is a way of life with the guiding principles of love, faith, obedience and humility, he said. “We do our best to guide our lives accordingly.”

Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders hand out Thanksgiving meals during drive-thru events in November.

Tribes ‘thankful to enjoy another meal’ 

The real story of the First Thanksgiving is a story of Indigeneity, Pewewardy said.  

“We celebrate Thanksgiving, but the whole idea is to understand about the spirit and intent of the First Thanksgiving,” he said.  

The Wampanoag saw the Europeans struggling and helped them survive. But that story morphed over time into one of friendship celebrated with turkey and pumpkin pie, Pewewardy said.  

“It commoditizes, it objectifies, it romanticizes our Native, Indigenous peoples and our cultures,” he said.  

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, in lieu of their pre-pandemic Thanksgiving community meals, held drive-thru events throughout their tribal lands in Western Oklahoma. Individual meals with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, rolls and pumpkin pie were handed out to 4,650 tribal members. 

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Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders carry drive-thru Thanksgiving meals to tribal citizens in Geary on Nov. 16.

At the event in Geary, where 400 meals were provided, Arapaho District 2 legislator Kendricks Sleeper said he was thankful the tribe was able to help its citizens celebrate with a warm meal. As for what Thanksgiving meant to him, he said it’s a reminder to always count your blessings. 

“We try to teach our kids to forgive, and at the same time, never forget,” Sleeper said. “We want to remember the history, but … we're thankful to be alive and thankful to enjoy another meal.” 

In Anadarko, the Kiowa War Mothers hosted their annual Thanksgiving meal for veterans and their families. The local group of about 25 women is part of a national organization for parents of children who served in the military, said Vice President Davetta Domebo, who is Kiowa. 

“We’ve been a Plains warrior tribe, so we have a wonderful history of defending our people and our community,” Domebo said. “When our country became a country as the United States, it was just a natural to volunteer.”  

Their yearly Thanksgiving meal is meant to thank veterans for their service. Volunteers make all the dishes and give each veteran a small gift. Domebo brought ham, cranberry salad, pies and drinks. Because of COVID-19, the group’s Thanksgiving meal was a drive-thru event in 2020. 

“Our whole thing is to honor, respect and share appreciation for their service,” Domebo said. “That’s just something we’ve done for years.” 

Kelli Mosteller, director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, stands in front of a replicated wigwam, a dwelling her tribe would have used in their Great Lakes homeland.

How educators can ‘decolonize Thanksgiving’ 

Many public schools teach about Thanksgiving and history from a non-Indigenous perspective, Tiger said. Teaching the accurate history and passing down traditions is an important duty so children do not feel the loss of their culture later in life, he said.  

“That’s what we’re trying to do, is undo all of the misinterpretations,” he said. 

Mosteller often hears about schools teaching about “Indians and pilgrims.” No educator has ever asked her to teach students what actually happened, she said. Instead, parents will ask how they can teach their elementary school student how their Potawatomi ancestors would have understood this time of year.  

“I think there’s a lot of unlearning that has to happen,” she said.

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Pewewardy noted that Thanksgiving falls in November, a month that is also recognized as Native American Heritage Month by the federal government. Schools create stereotypes about Native Americans when they teach Thanksgiving myths and encourage children to act as “pilgrims and Indians” with paper hats and feathers. 

“When Native kids hear that story and bring it home to their parents, they’re haunted, because their parents and grandparents already went through that when they were in school,” he said. 

Pewewardy has focused on helping educators proactively consider Indigenous perspectives and teach culturally responsive lessons. “I try to decolonize Thanksgiving — just to try to understand, ‘Whose story are you telling?’”  

Star Yellowfish, member of the Navajo Nation and director of Native American Student Services for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said a few years ago her kindergartner’s teacher was going to have them put on paper vests and feathers. She realized teachers needed resources for teaching historically accurate lessons on Native Americans. 

Kelli Mosteller, director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, explained her tribe gathered crops like potatoes in their Great Lakes homeland.

This, along with concerns from other district parents, prompted the department to create the “Native Knowledge” series of one- to two-page handouts for teachers. The series addresses topics like Thanksgiving, cultural appropriation at Halloween, Back the Braid and Native graduation regalia. 

"We ask … 'How did you learn about this? And what did it look like?' And we really push our teachers to … go beyond that," Yellowfish said. "What you learned is what you learned, but now we know the truth." 

Yellowfish said she thinks the change in teaching has given a sense of empowerment to the district’s Native students. 

"What they're learning is not all native people look a certain way, or not all Native people have tipis,” she said. "I really think that it's a movement in celebrating individuality and celebrating tribal diversity and giving our kids the encouragement to discuss these things openly with their friends."