What Native American Communities Are Facing This Thanksgiving

Every year, Native American history is exploited for Thanksgiving; meanwhile the everyday struggles faced by their communities are largely ignored.

Young Native American boy wearing traditional garb and headdress

Thanksgiving is upon us, which means families everywhere are preparing to feast and spend quality time with relatives. However, there is much more to this holiday that society tends to forget. 

Despite America’s whitewashed interpretation of a joyous meal shared between white Pilgrims and Native Americans, Thanksgiving is — at its core — a celebration of the invasion and genocide of indigenous peoples.

For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for the ancestors who lost their lives and their land at the hands of these white settlers.

Furthermore, Native Americans today are still suffering from the residual effects of this sordid history as their communities are currently fighting three very poignant issues. 

The Keystone Pipeline

Despite mass protest, the Keystone XL Pipeline is moving forward. However, many Native Americans' worst fears about the project were made a reality with last week’s oil spill in South Dakota.

According to Vice News, a leak in the pipeline gushed more than 200,000 gallons of oil into a farmer’s field on Thursday, which speaks to concerns raised by local tribes, landowners, and environmental groups about potential poisoning and contamination of their natural resources.

“The critics of the oil pipelines have a great concern about the lasting impact of such oil spills. This would include this Keystone Pipeline’s just-most-recent oil spill adjacent to the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota,” Daniel Sheehan, the Lakota People’s Law Project Chief Counsel, reportedly told VICE News. “This oil spill turns out to be located less than 10 feet from a water channel running directly into the James River.”

Despite this troubling incident, a commission in Nebraska approved a route for the final section of the pipeline on Monday. The blatant dismissal of the tribes’ worries exemplifies how Native Americans are still treated like second class citizens.

The Opioid Epidemic

Native Americans are among the most impacted by the current opioid epidemic, yet they are often excluded from the national conversation around the issue.

Last month, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency; however, the problem is largely associated with white, rural voters, which coincidentally, happen to make up most of Trump’s fan base.

Alas, Native Americans living on reservations are suffering the most. Approximately 8.4 per 100,000 Native Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2014 compared to 7.9 per 100,000 whites, according to The Washington Post.

"As a community member and through word of mouth, I know our population suffers immensely," said Leon Leader Charge — a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe — who worked in the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"We have people dying because they are abusing opioids, alcohol and methamphetamines. Their bodies can't take all of that, so they just shut down," he added.

As The Washington Post also notes, there are many contributing factors to opioid addiction in Native American communities, but intergenerational trauma related to systemic racism is a significant one.

Gloria Malone, a substance abuse counselor at one of the reservation’s long-term recovery houses, reportedly said all of her patients “struggle with the brokenness and sorrow of the past.”

Domestic Violence

One particularly troubling issue plaguing Native Americans is domestic violence, which is a direct result of the combination of historical trauma and substance abuse these communities are grappling with.

According to Cronkite News, Native American women experience domestic violence at rates 50 percent higher than the national average. Some factors that can lead to domestic violence, as noted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, include times of stress, family history, and substance abuse.

It is certainly no coincidence that the rates of substance abuse and domestic violence are high among marginalized descendants of genocide.

Additionally, the overall neglect of the Native American population in this country has resulted in a lack of resources to help heal the abused and the abusers. Counseling services, shelters, and educational programs are lacking within the Native American community at large, thus allowing the vicious cycle of abuse to continue.

While organizations such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Arizona-based Community Alliance Against Family Abuse are working toward improving these conditions for Native American domestic abuse victims, only so much can be done without awareness being more widely spread, in general, and on a legislative level. 

Each year, Native American history is exploited, reimagined, and commercialized for the sake of Thanksgiving. Let us not continue to perpetuate false accounts of history while simultaneously ignoring the very real plight Native Americans in this country endure as a result of the white man's invasion of this land.      

Banner / Thumbnail : Reuters, Lucas Jackson 

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