Around Thanksgiving, more colleges celebrate Native heritage

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In the student union at California State University, San Bernardino, students and employees gathered last Friday to watch performers demonstrate Native American traditions—including danza Azteca dance ceremonies and bird singing, a rhythmic musical style native to the American Southwest. Attendees also dined on soft, warm frybread, a kind of traditional Native American fried dough. Some took to the event’s open mike to share their own cultural histories and stories of how Thanksgiving—the holiday that has helped propagate inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans and colonization—has affected them.

It was the university’s inaugural “Thankstaking” gathering, one of several celebrations the university put on this month to uplift Native American culture and history. The term, which refers to the idea that European colonizers took resources and land from the Native Americans and gave nothing in return, has emerged in Indigenous communities to replace the name Thanksgiving, according to Carlos “Two Bears” Gonzales, who leads CSUSB’s First Peoples Center.

Increasingly, colleges and universities are opting to celebrate Native American Heritage Month in lieu of or in addition to any Thanksgiving celebrations. Although November has been officially designated Native American Heritage Month since 1990, many institutions are just now beginning to celebrate the month, as activists continue to raise awareness of Indigenous history and the misinformation associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Events range from lessons on local tribes’ histories to tutorials on Indigenous arts. Some colleges have even begun offering alternative Thanksgiving celebrations, where students can come together to share a meal and learn about the history of the holiday beyond the conventions of a “traditional” Thanksgiving gathering.

Gonzales, a member of the Gabrielino Tongva tribe, has been working on CSUSB’s Native American Heritage Month programming since he took on the role in August.

But he has been discussing the mythology around Thanksgiving for years. He began his career in education by giving lectures to schoolchildren about Indigenous history, which often involved debunking the commonly held beliefs that Native Americans were “uncivilized” prior to the arrival of the Europeans, or that colonizers peacefully coexisted with Natives.

Simply giving students a new perspective on Thanksgiving wasn’t Gonzales’s only goal in planning Native American Heritage Month celebrations, which included basket-weaving workshops, “Wisdom Wednesday” roundtables with Native leaders on campus, lectures and more. He also hoped to teach the CSUSB community about the customs and traditions of Indigenous tribes closer to campus, as well as to build community among the Native students.

“I wanted to create programs that were going to be a little more laid-back, in the sense of, I didn’t want there to be too much seriousness,” he said. “When I created the Wisdom Wednesdays, I wanted to set that up as a table talk with the vibes of sitting at, maybe, your grandmother’s kitchen table and listening to her talk about stories.”

The Thankstaking celebration was a highlight, giving students multiple opportunities to socialize, connect and learn. It was the first time, to Gonzales’s knowledge, that CSUSB had offered such an event.

Other colleges across the country, including the University of Nevada at Reno and Drexel University in Philadelphia, also launched new Native American Heritage Month celebrations this year.

Drexel’s Indigenous student organization, Drexel Indigenous Students of the Americas, partnered with the university’s Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion to hold a Thanks to the Land dinner the Thursday before Thanksgiving. The event featured a speaker from the Lenape Nation, an Indigenous people who once inhabited New Jersey, northern Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania and southeastern New York.

“Yesterday’s event was amazing. I’m from Arizona and my tribe is from Arizona as well, so I know their struggles there, but it’s interesting to come to this part of America, where colonization started,” said Sky Harper, a third-year chemistry major at Drexel and the founder of DISA, who is Navajo. “It was eye-opening, even from my perspective.”

The university was unable to get Native American food catered for the event, as there are no Native restaurants in Philadelphia; the closest they could find were in New York City, according to MyKella Mitchell, assistant director of the SCDI. Instead, the dinner featured more classic Thanksgiving fare—turkey, sweet potatoes, greens—provided by a local restaurant.

Attracting Native American Students

The University of Nevada at Reno will host a Thankstaking dinner today, mainly for students who aren’t returning home for the fall holiday. It concludes a slate of other Native American Heritage Month events, including a luncheon for Native American first-generation students and a “virtual museum” of Indigenous basketry, where students could view artifacts using VR goggles.

The university has developed a number of new resources and programs to support Indigenous students over the past year, launching a new Office of Indigenous Relations, according to a message earlier this month from the university’s president, former Nevada governor Brian Sandoval.

Daphne Emm Hooper, UNR’s director of community Indigenous relations and a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said these efforts coincide with work that the Nevada state Legislature has done to make higher education more accessible to Native American students.

Celebrations of Native cultures and traditions can play a role in recruiting and retaining those students, she said.

“I think so often our Native populations are small, and so there’s often a lack of recognition and support,” she said. “If they feel like they belong and have support, then they’ll do better in the long run.”

Gonzales noted that, while uplifting Indigenous cultures and voices during November is a step in the right direction, colleges shouldn’t stop there.

“It’s great to have a month dedicated to us. We love it. However, Native American heritage should be celebrated 365 days a year,” he said. “If you’re going to adopt these heritage months and celebrate them and promote them at your school, you’ve got to go either 100 miles an hour or stay at zero … If you’re going to really make the attempt to promote the heritage month … push the agenda.”