Every year in November, elementary school children will hear the story of the first Thanksgiving. However, they may only hear one side of the story: The pilgrims came to America on the Mayflower in 1620, and two native men taught them how to fish and grow corn. After the first successful harvest, the Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted on deer, fish, and potatoes, celebrating in good spirits. What those first graders won’t learn is of the horrifying massacre of Native Americans committed by the settlers themselves.
Today, Thanksgiving is characterized by large meals with friends and family, giving thanks for whatever you are thankful for, and Black Friday. However, what is brushed under the rug is that what Americans have today was stolen from the true inhabitants who, after genocide, only make up 1.5 percent of the population. The facts that are not emphasized show the true realities that haunt American natives every day and that have been lurking since before the first Thanksgiving.
According to the American Community Survey for the American Indian and Alaska Native population (conducted by the United States Census Bureau), 28.4 percent of American Natives were living in poverty in 2010, versus 15.3 percent of the total population. In addition, 29.2 percent were living without health care, as opposed to 15.5 percent of the total population. This is very obviously disproportionate from Native Americans to the whole of the rest of the country. Native Americans are arguably the most economically disadvantaged ethnic group in the country. What needs to be brought to light is that Thanksgiving means a lot more than how we treat it. Not only has it become centered around consumerism, but the truth about genocide of Native Americans continues to be overlooked, as well. Native Americans tend to disproportionately face the struggle of poverty and oppression. Low-income leads to poor nutrition, poor quality of life, and a staggeringly high suicide rate.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) also reported that in 2014, the rate of suicide in American Natives is over three times the national average. In one case, a young woman committed suicide because there were no mental health services available on her reservation. These statistics are often overlooked by the general population. Reservations are smaller communities, and coming forward as a victim of sexual assault, or as a person who may have a mental illness, can be difficult. Victims often face backlash and blame in these situations. The community may find difficulty in believing the victim when they may know both the victim and the alleged attacker. Reservations should be places with recognized sovereignty that communities can choose to live on. However, with 566 recognized tribes and 310 reservations, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there is not adequate space in the 2 percent of American land that Native Americans possess.
So, why should the average American care? Many people may not care because genocide is in the past, and Americans today are not inherently responsible for it. However, oppression is everyone’s issue. The reason why everyone should care is because Native Americans are still disadvantaged, discriminated against, and oppressed today. It is up to everyone to make that stop. Anyone can write a letter, or volunteer some time to make a difference. The important issue is that settlers came to the Americas and took what wasn’t theirs. Native Americans still feel the effects today because they were forced onto these reservations after mass murder, and that was called “giving back.” The moral: Be thankful for what you have, but don’t pretend that the issues don’t exist because it will take the effort of many to make a difference for Native Americans today.