With Thanksgiving just around the corner, guest speaker Dr. Cornel Pewewardy of Portland State University spoke on campus Tuesday, discussing the historical and cultural implication of the holiday from a Native American perspective.
A member of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, Pewewardy is a professor and director of the indigenous nations studies program at PSU. In a lecture titled “How the Grinch Stole Thanksgiving,” he spoke about the historical inaccuracies in modern portrayals of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Pewewardy said this traditional “manufactured Thanksgiving” has been created by people outside of Native American culture. In comparison, he said, Native Americans still give thanks, but in alternative ways.
“We have prayer, we have song, we give thanks for our very existence. We turn it around in our own way,” he said.
Like other holidays, including Christmas and Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is not based on historical accuracy, but rather on the importance and prevalence of maintaining a consumer culture, Pewewardy said.
The image of the happy Native Americans dining with pilgrims, he noted, is a social construct which does not give justice to the deep imbedded history of violent massacres and suppression.
Fresno State anthropology professor Dvera Saxton agreed with Pewewardy, prompting students to think about the cultural implications behind their holidays.
“I’m struck by the irony of inventing holidays with consumption that has continued, and that may be part of our attachment too,” he said.
Pewewardy spoke not only about Thanksgiving perceptions, but also of the abundance of pop culture references portrayed socially. Such examples included demeaning Halloween costumes, political misrepresentation and mascot usage from every tier of the sports industry – from high schools to professional sports teams, including in the National Football League.
“Geronimo was the code name for the episode on Bin Laden,” Pewewardy said. “As you begin to look in this era of militarization, they are still caught in the consciousness of the battlefield. That you would still name the enemy with this kind of code name, what would people feel?”
The problem is not only a global misrepresentation, but also an indebted flaw in the American public education system, he said.
He said throughout his research, there are four domains for learned behavior that accentuate through the public school systems, reinforcing a consumer culture: eurocentric, individualistic, materialistic and competitive. Pewewardy said this culture is designed and driven by those who profit.
“What is it going to take for the healing to take place?” Pewewardy asked. “Diplomacy is how we solve problems, through learned behavior, and so that’s why I want to bring this into the classroom.
“There is truth in reconciliation, just like anything else. Sitting down with people and saying I’m sorry, that is the spirit of Thanksgiving.”
In this “day and age of honoring diversity,” Pewewardy said it is important to fight off the eradication of an entire culture’s history and create an all-inclusive living history that resurrects the forgotten.
“This is the year 2014, and we’re still looking at this as a teaching moment,” Pewewardy said.