Indigenous activists let Iowans know the truth behind Thanksgiving

Some Iowa activists are breaking stereotypes surrounding Thanksgiving with an alternative celebration called Truthsgiving.

For some indigenous peoples, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the devastating effects of colonialism on indigenous communities. As such, local activists are encouraging Iowa residents to use the day to correct the myths surrounding the holiday’s history.

What is truth finding?

Great Plains Action Society director Sikowis Nobiss said this is a way to ensure the historical trauma suffered by Indigenous communities in the years since the Pilgrims arrived is remembered.

“It brings us to today where tribal peoples are still feeling the effects of extinctions,” she said. “Almost like we’re something from the past, like we don’t exist anymore.”

Sikowis Nobiss stands in a maroon sweatshirt with slogan "The truth is not embellished."

Courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

Sikowis Nobiss started truthtelling six years ago with the intention of debunking Thanksgiving myths.

Six years ago, Nobiss, along with her friend Dave Whiting, organized the first truth giving dinner party in Iowa City. Since then the tradition has grown. This year the truth giving took place in Iowa City, Sioux City and even across the border in Omaha.

Trisha Etringer of the Great Plains Action Society hosted this year’s event at Western Iowa Technical Community College in Sioux City. She said too many people believe the false narrative that the holiday brought harmony between settlers and tribes.

“Iowa prides itself on having one of the best education systems in the nation. But even the tale surrounding Thanksgiving is filled with legend and myth,” she said.

Etringer says the truth behind colonization is harsh. Indigenous people were killed, disenfranchised and systematically attacked as settlers. According to PBS, an estimated 90% of Native Americans died from disease after Europeans arrived in North America.

How did Thanksgiving become a holiday?

In her presentation, Etringer not only addressed the historical hardships of Native Americans, but also explored how Thanksgiving itself came about.

The holiday was introduced by Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War divided the nation. One writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, wrote an editorial urging the President to establish the holiday as a means of uniting the country.

But its establishment did not lead to better treatment of indigenous people, Etringer said. Indeed, shortly thereafter, Lincoln ordered the public execution of 38 Dakota men after the US-Dakota War of 1862.

Trisha Etringer gives a lecture on the history of Thanksgiving at Western Iowa Technical Community College.  She is standing in a black shirt in front of a projector that says

Great Plains Action Society Facebook

Trisha Etringer gives a lecture on the history of Thanksgiving at Western Iowa Technical Community College.

She said Divination is about educating others about this difficult history and understanding how these events continue to affect tribal communities today.

“You have to talk about that,” said Etringer. “We have to go through a lot just to be seen as tribal peoples.”

How can I celebrate the gift of truth?

Nobiss continues to encourage Iowans to sit down with their families to eat and say thank you. But she said she wants people to make space for the indigenous perspective to be shared.

She said she hopes people could use the time to speak about some of the historical trauma suffered by Indigenous communities, rather than glossing over the narrative.

“You don’t have to do away with Thanksgiving entirely,” Nobiss said. “But talk about the truths.”

Nobiss said giving back is another important part of giving. She said it was a chance to help each other and help those suffering from poverty.

“It’s time for people to take a stand,” she said.