American Indian or Alaska Native

A Thanksgiving Grounded In History

by Rev . Irene Monroe

As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded of the autumnal harvest time’s spiritual significance. As a time of connectedness, I pause to acknowledge what I have to be thankful for.

But I also reflect on the holiday as a time of remembrance—historical and familial.

Historically, I am reminded that for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a cause of celebration, but rather a National Day of Mourning, remembering the real significance of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 as a symbol of persecution and genocide of Native Americans and the long history of bloodshed with European settlers.

And in a supposedly more enlightened, if not “post-racial,” society one would think that images of Americans misusing Native American culture would be long gone, but in fact, our country still cannot decide whether a racial epitaph is an appropriate name for a sports team.

I am also reminded of my Two Spirit Native American friends who struggle with their families and tribes not approving of their sexual identities and gender expressions as many of us do with our families and faith communities. Gabriel Duncan, member of Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits (BAAITS), told the Pacific News Service:

“Yes, there’s internalized homophobia in every gay community, but as Native Americans we are taught not to like ourselves because we’re not white. In our communities, people don’t like us because we’re gay.”

Consequently, many Two Spirit Native Americans leave their reservations and isolated communities hoping to connect with the larger LGBTQ community in urban cites. However, due to racism and cultural insensitivity, many Two-Spirit people feel less understood and more isolated than they did back home.

But homophobia and transphobia are not indigenous to Native American culture.

Rather, it is one of the many devastating effects of colonization and Christian missionaries that today Two Spirit people may be respected within one tribe yet ostracized in another. “Homophobia was taught to us as a component of Western education and religion,” Navajo anthropologist Wesley Thomas has written. “We were presented with an entirely new set of taboos, which did not correspond to our own models and which focused on sexual behavior rather than the intricate roles Two-Spirit people played. As a result of this misrepresentation, our nations no longer accepted us as they once had.”

Traditionally, Two Spirit people symbolized Native Americans’ acceptance and celebration of diverse gender expressions and sexual identities. They were revered as inherently sacred because they possessed and manifested both feminine and masculine spiritual qualities that were believed to bestow upon them a “universal knowledge” and special spiritual connectedness with the “Great Spirit.” Although the term was coined in the early 1990s, historically the term Two Spirit depicted transgender Native Americans. Today, the term has come to also include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and intersex Native Americans.

The Pilgrims, who sought refuge here in America from religious persecution in their homeland, were right in their dogged pursuit of religious liberty. But their actual practice of religious liberty came at the expense of the civil and sexual rights of Native Americans. The Pilgrims’ animus toward people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations not only impacted Native American culture, but it also shaped Puritan law and theology.

Here in the New England states, the anti-sodomy rhetoric had punitive if not deadly consequences for a newly developing and sparsely populated area.

The Massachusetts Bay Code of 1641 called for the death of not only heretics, witches and murderers, but also “sodomites,” stating that death would come swiftly to any “man lying with a man as with a woman.” And the renowned Puritan pastor and Harvard tutor, the Rev. Samuel Danforth in his 1674 “fire and brimstone” sermon preached to his congregation that the death sentence for sodomites had to be imposed because it was a biblical mandate.

Because the Pilgrims’ fervor for religious liberty was devoid of an ethic of accountability, their actions did not set up the conditions requisite for moral liability and legal justice. Instead, the actions of the Pilgrims brought about the genocide of a people, a historical amnesia of the event, and an annual national celebration of Thanksgiving for their arrival.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush ironically—if not ignorantly—designated November as “National American Indian Heritage Month” to celebrate the history, art, and traditions of Native American people.

As we get into the holiday spirit, let us remember the whole story of the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers to the New World.

On a trip home to New York City in May 2004, I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to view the UNESCO Slave Route Project, “Lest We Forget: the Triumph Over Slavery,” that marks the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution proclaiming 2004 “The International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Its Abolition.”

In highlighting that African Americans should not be shamed by slavery, but instead defiantly proud of our memory of it, I read the opening billboard to the exhibit that stated, “By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized and by assigning it its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember.”

It is in the spirit of our connected struggles against discrimination that we can all stand on a solid rock that rests on a multicultural foundation for a true and honest Thanksgiving.

And in so doing, it helps us to remember, respect, mourn and give thanks to the struggles not only our LGBTQ foremothers and forefathers endured, but also the ongoing struggle that Native American Two Spirit people face everyday—and particularly on Thanksgiving Day.

With contributing editor Lynn Young (Lakota), TransFaith

Photo of Sheldon Raymore (Cheyenne River Sioux) and Janis Stacy (Dakota and Cherokee), courtesy of NorthEast Two-Spirit Society (NE2SS)

Comments (1)

Rusty Hicks

Thank you for this
Thank you for this refreshingly honest and inspiring vision not only of the twisted roots of our Thanksgiving celebrations, but also of respect and honor for “Two-Spirited” creativity, wisdom and beauty. I hear the justified rage and pain in this statement, bringing to mind past horrors and present rejection. As a pastor in the Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, I find it ironic that one branch of this denomination began as the “Congregational” tradition, whose ancestors were the Pilgrims and Puritans. Yes, they tended to be dogmatic and literalistic in their faith, and cruel in practices toward native communities. Yet, because this tradition was based on a deep respect for equality and democratic governance, it evolved into one of the most progressive of denominations in this country. It was the first in our nation to ordain into ministry a Native American, and an African American, the first to ordain a woman in 1853, the first to ordain an openly gay man in 1972. It voted to be “Open and Affirming” to the LGBT community in 1985, and for marriage equality in 2005. Though it has a past that must not be forgotten, it has been a progressive voice for equality and just treatment of all peoples, including native tribes and the LGBT community. Perhaps this is a small lesson in hope for change.

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