FORT PECK INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. — On a frigid November morning inside a tractor barn in northeast Montana, 10 members of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes joined in song to bless a thirty-aught-six hunting rifle, and to lift up the spirit of a buffalo they were preparing to kill. One man played a painted hand drum. Others passed around burning sage.
The hunt that followed took place on Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch, 27,000 acres of rolling pasture on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Every stage of the hunt was marked by a ceremony to give thanks for a buffalo that descends from animals killed to near-extinction by white settlers in the late 19th century.
The mass killing was part of a government-approved effort to seize land from Native Americans who depended on the animal to survive. The brutality of settlers’ expansion into the Great Plains and American West has been drastically underplayed in popular myths about the founding and growth of the United States.
Arguably the best-known of those myths is the story of the first Thanksgiving, a holiday Robert Magnan, who led the buffalo hunt at Fort Peck, does not observe. “Thanksgiving is kind of like Columbus Day for Native people,” he said. “Why would we celebrate people who tried to destroy us?”
It is now widely accepted that the story of a friendship-sealing repast between white colonists and Native Americans is inaccurate. Articles debunking the tale have become as reliable an annual media ritual as recipes for cornbread stuffing.
But this year should be different, say Native American leaders, scholars and teachers.
The holiday arrives in the midst of a national struggle over racial justice, and a pandemic that has landed with particular force on marginalized communities of color. The crises have fueled an intense re-examination of the roots of persistent inequities in American life.
This Thanksgiving also comes on the heels of an election in which 110 American Indian and Alaska Native candidates ran for office, according to the National Congress of American Indians, and on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage.
Winona LaDuke, the Native American activist and writer who ran for vice president in 1996 and 2000 as Ralph Nader’s running mate, believes that the country is primed to re-envision Thanksgiving as an occasion to come to terms with the cruelty Native Americans have experienced throughout history.