New York-area PBS website MetroFocus spoke with Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Brooklyn-based Redhawk Native American Arts Council, about the Thanksgiving holiday. Redhawk is atri-state pan-indigenous arts council that incorporates over 75 tribes and nations from North and South America, the Caribbean and Polynesian islands.
Matias describes Thanksgiving as “a mixed message for Native peoples.” People all over the world have harvest ceremonies, he says, but the American concept of a peaceful meal between Indians and Pilgrims is inaccurate and bitterly ironic given the often brutal history that followed Europeans’ arrival on Turtle Island.
“In 1621, the Wampanoag brought about five deer, among other things and watched the Puritans drink and shoot muskets,” Matias told Thirteen.org. “The Wampanoag wanted to adopt the Pilgrims and have them live as Wampanoag. Within 50 years, almost three-fourths of the Wampanoag were decimated through disease and the European style of warfare brought to their homeland.”
Although Matias’s group elects not to endorse Thanksgiving — by, for instance, participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade — he points out that having mixed feelings about Thanksgiving does not make Natives unpatriotic. “Thanksgiving is an American holiday, not a native one, but we’re proud to be Americans,” he says. “Indigenous people have the highest per capita percentage of people in the armed forces. We defend the land that our ancestors are buried under. This is still our homeland.”
In addition to being Redhawk’s cultural director, Matias is also a skilled dancer and a contributing photographer to Indian Country Today Media Network. To read the full interview and watch a clip of him dancing, visit Thirteen.org: Q&A: Native Americans’ Complicated Relationship to Thanksgiving.