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Native activists educate Iowans on the truth behind Thanksgiving

A group of people stand with a 'Truthsgiving' poster.
Courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss
Truthsgiving celebrates the Indigenous perspective around the holiday of Thanksgiving.

Some Iowa activists are breaking down stereotypes surrounding Thanksgiving, through an alternative celebration called Truthsgiving.

For some Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a reminder of the devastating impact of colonialism on Native communities. So, Native activists are encouraging Iowans to use the day as a way to correct the myths surrounding the holiday’s history.

What’s Truthsgiving?

Great Plains Action Society director Sikowis Nobiss said it’s a way to ensure that the historical trauma that Indigenous communities have endured throughout the years since the pilgrims arrived is remembered.

“It brings us to the current day where Indigenous peoples are still feeling the effects of erasures,” she said. “Almost like we're something from the past, like we don't exist anymore.”

Sikowis Nobiss stands in a maroon sweatshirt that reads "The Truth Will Not Be Whitewashed."
Courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss
Sikowis Nobiss began Truthsgiving six years ago with the intent of breaking down Thanksgiving myths.

Six years ago, Nobiss, alongside her friend Dave Whiting, organized the first Truthsgiving as a small dinner in Iowa City. Since then, the tradition has grown. This year, Truthsgiving took place in Iowa City, Sioux City and even across the border in Omaha.

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

“Iowa prides itself on being on one of the best education systems in the nation. However, even the narrative around Thanksgiving is laced with legends and myths,” she said.

Etringer says the truth behind colonization is hard. Native peoples were killed, disenfranchised and systemically targeted as settlers. An estimated 90% of Indigenous people died from disease after Europeans arrived in North America, according to PBS.

How did Thanksgiving become a holiday?

In her presentation, Etringer not only covered the historic hardships of Native tribes, but she also went through how Thanksgiving itself came to be.

The holiday was established by Abraham Lincoln, after the Civil War had divided the nation. A writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, wrote an editorial, urging the president to establish the holiday as a way to unify the country.

But its establishment did not translate into better treatment for Indigenous people, Etringer said. In fact, shortly afterwards Lincoln ordered the public execution of 38 Dakota men, in the aftermath of the U.S-Dakota War of 1862.

Trisha Etringer gives a presentation on the history of Thanksgiving at Western Iowa Technical Community College. She stands in a black shirt in front of a projector that says 'Truthsgiving'.
Great Plains Action Society Facebook
Trisha Etringer gives a presentation on the history of Thanksgiving at Western Iowa Technical Community College.

She said Truthsgiving is about educating others on this difficult history and understanding how these events still impact tribal communities today.

“It needs to be talked about,” Etringer said. “We have to go through a lot just to be seen, as Indigenous peoples.”

How can I celebrate Truthsgiving?

Nobiss still encourages Iowans to continue to sit down with their families for a meal and to give thanks. But, she said she wants people to give room for the Indigenous perspective to be shared.

She said she hopes people can use the time to talk about some of the historical trauma undergone by Indigenous communities, instead of whitewashing the narrative.

“You don’t have to abolish Thanksgiving completely,” Nobiss said. “But, talk about the truths.”

Nobiss said giving back is another important part of Truthsgiving. She said it’s a chance to engage in mutual aid efforts and to help those suffering from poverty.

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

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.