Q&A: Native Americans’ Complicated Relationship to Thanksgiving

Q&A: Native Americans’ Complicated Relationship to Thanksgiving

November 21, 2011 at 4:00 am

Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Brooklyn-based Redhawk Native American Arts Council, spoke with NYC ARTS about Thanksgiving, which often conjures a deceptively rosy snapshot of the history between Puritans and Native Americans. Beyond overcoming misconceptions about the past, one of Matias’s challenges is to bring to life the realities of Native Americans’ existence today.

Cliff Matias teaching an Eastern Woodlands Workshop with New York City children. Matias said Native Americans have a complex relationship with Thanksgiving, but he uses the holiday as a time for his family to come together. Photo courtesy of the Redhawk Native American Council.

Q: How do you feel about Thanksgiving?

A: Thanksgiving is a mixed message for native peoples. Of course people all over the world had such harvest ceremonies.  People who depend on the earth are very thankful to grow a crop. You never know what nature will bring. Native Americans had festivals for green corn, apples, strawberries.

Q: What is your heritage?

A: My heritage is Kichwa (sometimes spelled Quechua), who are descendents of the Inca, who are from Peru and Ecuador, and Taino, who are from the Caribbean.

Q: What does ‘redhawk’ in your organization signify?

A: The council is a pan-indigenous arts council, representing more than 75 tribes and nations in the tri-state area that hail from North and South America, the Caribbean and Polynesian islands.

Hawks are birds of prey, which are always symbols for indigenous people. We picked the hawk because we’re based in New York City. And the hawk is a symbol of survival. We see hawks in these urban settings that adapt and survive. But our logo is actually the waterbird, a symbol of renewal and life.


Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, speaks about teaching in New York City schools and sharing native culture in the documentary “The Neverending Circle,” by Victoria Prieto.

Q: Many people think Thanksgiving has its origins in a feast that Puritan Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag nation shared in Massachusetts in 1621.

A: Thanksgiving is not a Native American ceremony. The Thanksgiving holiday Americans observe today on the third Thursday of November was created by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as a general day to give thanks. Fifty years later, it became a silly story about the Wampanoag sitting with Pilgrims at this one feast.

In fact, in 1621, the Wampanoag brought about five deer, among other things and watched the Puritans drink and shoot muskets. 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.

Q: In your outreach and education programs, what’s most fun — or challenging — for you in overcoming people’s preconceptions?

A: Our programs teach kids about indigenous cultures and about understanding the inhabitants in America, especially in New York. It’s a tough job to teach kids about people they think they don’t see. They expect natives to be dressed in regalia and feathers. It’s a challenge just to teach them that native peoples exist. People actually ask you if you’re “real.”  We also work with organizations that have older communities that grew up with John Wayne movies full of stereotypical images.

We’re using the arts to break stereotypes, share culture and correct inconsistencies in some curriculum.  Educators teach children about “Indians,” but it’s the Wampanoag in particular who feasted with Pilgrims. Children should know the word Wampanoag, which refers to a nation and people, which is as specific as saying Puritans or English.

What excites people’s interest  in our culture is our singing, dancing and colorful outfits. We have a motto: “Capture their hearts with song and dance,” then  capture their minds to our culture, history and what indigenous people are truly about.

A hoop dancer performs at a Redhawk Native American Council event. The council has a motto: "Capture their hearts with song and dance." Photo courtesy of the Redhawk Native American Council.

Q: Do you or other groups have a presence in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

A: Thanksgiving offends some indigenous people so we choose not to get involved. The Wampanoag in the Massachusetts area have a day of mourning. They fast on Thanksgiving and have a sunrise ceremony to remember ancestors who didn’t make it.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, not a native one, but we’re proud to be Americans.

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. Indigenous people have been instrumental in every battle in New York City — the French and Indian War; Iroquois in the Revolutionary War –- the Valley Forge troops were fed by natives; the War of 1812 and Civil War (Native nations were represented on both sides).  Ely S. Parker, a Seneca and adjutant to General Ulysses S. Grant, wrote the terms of surrender for the Confederates at Appotomax.  Seeing him at the surrender, Confederate General Robert E. Lee thought Parker was black, but upon learning he was Seneca,  Lee said, “I’m glad to see one real American here.”

Q: How will you personally observe Thanksgiving this year?

A: My family uses it as a day to come together. We also have a moment when we think about our ancestors and brothers and sisters who are no longer with us. Abraham Lincoln thought we should give thanks. In the Civil War, even Northern troops shared with Southern troops on that day for some peace and harmony. That’s what I think of Thanksgiving as.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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