Voices in Education

Unlearning Thanksgiving: Centering Indigenous Youth Voice | Part 1

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In recognition of November being Native American Heritage month, PBS Newshour Student Reporting Labs gathered perspectives from Native American students on what Thanksgiving means to them, and the importance of educating others about Native American heritage. 

Cordelia Falls Down, a member of the Apsáalooke Nation and United Keetoowah Band, is from the Crow reservation of Montana. She is pursuing a Masters degree in Native American Studies-Tribal Governance and Policy at University of Oklahoma. 

She responded to written questions about the importance of preserving her community’s traditions, how she has dealt with false perceptions of Native Americans and what Thanksgiving means to her.

The meaning of being Native American, in one word: Connection

The necessity of Native American Heritage month

People often forget that Native Nations are a living culture. We have been depicted as a people of the past with countless attempts to erase our people and culture. Yet despite a history of genocide and assimilation, we continue to fight for our people, our representation, presence, and future-and that is something truly worth honoring. So not only is it important to have a month dedicated to Native American heritage, it is necessary. Native American Heritage month is more than just a hashtag or a post you do on instagram once a year, it is a time to celebrate the lives, culture, and resiliency of Native peoples. Learn whose land you are on, educate yourself on the histories of our Nations, learn about contemporary issues, support Native businesses, and pay tribute to the first peoples of this land.

Community traditions and resiliency

As Apsaalooke people, upholding our traditions and culture is vital. From our Crow style dancing, arrow tournaments, hand games, beading and sewing circles, and stories, it is important to continue these traditions as it represents our culture and identity. However it is also important to note that these traditions and values have been greatly threatened since settler colonialism. From Manifest Destiny, land theft, Indian boarding schools, and forced assimilation, there were many attempts to erase Indigenous culture and livelihood across all Nations. These acts have had lasting impacts that Native people still face today, but our communities are diligently working towards language revitalization, land back, recognition, and working to increase awareness for Native issues. The determination to create a prosperous future for the next generations despite being in a colonial world speaks volumes of the resiliency Native people possess and the strength that has been passed down from ancestors. This is what I want others to know about Native people and who we are; we are still here as community members, teachers, veterans, doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, mentors, and Nations. Our existence is resistance and we are truly a powerful people. Misunderstandings and lack of Native representation 

From racist mascots, being categorized as “other”, or a few weeks ago in a CNN poll as “something else”, I have always felt misunderstood given the lack of representation for Native people. When you live a lifetime of not seeing anyone who looks like you and the only “representation” you see is history books, it greatly affects the way you see yourself. To many, the jokes we see on tv about Native people, the costumes worn on Halloween, and the spaces that lack a Native presence is incredibly discouraging and has affected the way non-Native people view Native Americans. I distinctly remember my first time correcting somebody who fed into the narrative of Natives and “free college” (which by the way, we do not get to go to college for free). I was in my social justice class, a lecture hall that was predominately white and much bigger than my high school graduating class of 24 people. For the entire semester, I chose to sit in the back and did not raise my hand unless for attendance. One day, my professor brought up “affirmative action” in our class. A student in the front explained that it was like Native students getting free tuition. Slowly putting my hand up and with a shaky voice I explained that Native students getting anything free has always been a common misconception, and that in actuality, was far from the truth. She apologized and some students turned around and nodded at me as if saying, “I hear you”. This experience was a stepping stone for me, it taught me that as an Indigenous woman it is important to utilize my voice even when I am standing alone. 

Correcting false perceptions

I have engaged in classroom dialogue in large lecture halls with predominantly non-Native people who came from worlds very different from my own. I have been blessed to be a part of organizations and spaces that are pushing for representation and bringing awareness to crucial issues. These organizations I have been blessed to be a part of include Gamma Delta Pi-Native Women sorority, Women of Power, American Indian Student Association, and Center for Native American Youth. In my undergraduate years, I was also blessed to win the Miss Indian OU title which allowed me a platform to promote and emphasize Native Student success and representation. A more personal experience has been promoting awareness to the Missing and Murdered and Indigenous Women and Girls movement on campus with my sorority. While I have corrected people’s false perceptions about me and my culture through conversations, social media platforms, and at any given chance, I also focus on emphasizing the message that we are still here-and what we have to say is important. 

If you really knew me, you would know that…

I am proud and grateful to be an Apsáalooke and Keetoowah woman. I wouldn’t change this for anything.

The true meaning of Thanksgiving 

Many people are taught that Thanksgiving represents the first feast between Pilgrims and Native peoples. At a young age, I was taught by my family what Thanksgiving actually represented-the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Many people still believe the myth that Thanksgiving represents a time of unity. They gather with family and eat traditional Indigenous foods while occupying Indigenous land. In a month that is supposed to celebrate Native heritage is also the same month where genocide is erased. While this has been a time to eat, have a small fall break, and enjoy the company of family, it is also important to learn the true history behind this “holiday” and understand its representation of colonial violence. Respect those that wish to not celebrate this holiday, learn more about the Native land you occupy, and correct the narrative and history to friends and family.

Combating the Thanksgiving narrative 

In order to combat the narrative around Thanksgiving, it is important to correct people’s perception around the holiday. People need to explain to friends and family that the “Thanksgiving holiday” represents settler colonialism, violence, and genocide. Believing the myth that Thanksgiving is a holiday that represents unity between Pilgrims and Indians is an erasure of Native American history. It is also important to combat the narrative in all spaces such as school, work, social gatherings, and social platforms. If you are non-Native listen and ask Native peers on how to be a better ally. Many of us appreciate when people ask rather than assuming or not asking at all.

The header art is by Apay’uq Moore, Yup’ik artist from Bristol Bay.

​Cordelia Falls Down (Apsáalooke)

​Cordelia Falls Down (Apsáalooke) Graduate Student Instagram: cordi_fd

Cordelia Falls Down is a member of the Apsáalooke Nation and United Keetoowah Band. Her name is Biabaashíalebaaxpáash which translates to “Sacred Dream Woman” given to her by her grandfather Art Alden, a Vietnam veteran. Her clan is Piegan and she is a child of Piegan (Ashkaamne). Cordelia is from the Crow reservation of Montana but currently resides in Norman, OK where she completed a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is currently in graduate school to pursue a Masters in Native American Studies - Tribal Governance and Policy. Cordelia is a Democracy Indigenous organizer and has been actively involved with organizing census and voting campaigns. It has given her great opportunities to continue to work with her home community and be a part of a new community as well-something she is very grateful for.

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