Keep your Thanks: Here’s the justice queer Native Americans really hunger for

A closeup of a dancing Native American Woman, wearing beaded jewelery, and colorful clothing, while dancing with her eyes closed at the annual Delta Park Pow Wow in Portland, Oregon.
A Native American woman Photo: Shutterstock

The “first Thanksgiving” of 1621 between the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and English Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts wasn’t as friendly as people think. In fact, many Native Americans feel that the occasion marked the start of 400 years of colonization and oppression. Some choose instead to observe the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day, a day for recognizing Indigenous communities and their contributions to the nation.

Many present-day queer and Two-Spirit Native American activists are working to reclaim Indigenous lands, rituals, culture, and mental health. While some public events have begun reciting “land acknowledgments” — defined by NPR as “formal statements recognizing Indigenous communities’ rights to territories seized by colonial powers” — some see such statements as a well-intentioned but empty gesture, while others see them as a necessary first step towards restorative justice. On that road to justice, however, here are some of the political goals sought by Indigenous activists:

Legal recognition by federal and state governments

Some tribes were forced into reservation territory and allowed sovereignty to oversee its land, businesses, and governance. But other tribes haven’t been legally recognized at all — something that severely limits tribe members’ ability to claim ancestral lands and receive financial restitution.

The federal government didn’t legally recognize the aforementioned Mashpee Wampanoag tribe until 2007, even though the tribe had existed for 12,000 years beforehand. Others continue to fight for legal recognition, even though their existence may already be well documented in historical records.

Restoring ancestral lands

Many tribes desire sovereignty over the lands that their ancestors once inhabited. This includes the Lakota Sioux, whose ancestors lived in the Black Hills, an area that now contains Mount Rushmore. The tribe oversaw the hills until the U.S. government violated a treaty, massacred their tribe members at Wounded Knee, and then carved the faces of four former U.S. presidents into the mountainside.

Predictably, many state and federal governments oppose restoring tribal lands, but it can be done. In 2015, the federal government pledged to restore 300 acres to the aforementioned Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, though former President Donald Trump’s Department of the Interior reversed the decision in 2018.

In 2009, the Wiyot people of California’s northern coast raised $106,000 to buy 1.5 acres on their ancestral land of Duluwat Island. The Eureka City Council voted to give the tribe 240 additional acres of island that the city had controlled. Around 2020, a United Methodist Church in Ohio also returned some land to the Wyandotte Nation.

This restoration can neither completely restore the ecological damage nor the lost relationships the tribes once had to their lands. But for many, it’s an important way to ensure that tribe members have a home and community dedicated to preserving their culture.

Preserving Indigenous knowledge

Although Indigenous communities only comprise an estimated 5% of the world’s population, they safeguard an estimated 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, according to the World Wildlife Federation. This safeguarding includes centuries-old practices of hunting, agriculture, and preservation that foster a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the land while providing sustainable alternatives to widespread deforestation, fossil fuel use, industrial over-farming, and species’ extinction. These are particularly important considering the increased natural disasters that have arisen due to climate change.

Potawatomi ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer gave a glimpse into some of these ecological practices in her 2013 best-selling book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plant. But tribes also seek to preserve other sorts of cultural traditions too, including ceremonies, rituals, clothing, dances, foods, music, language, oral history, folklore, observances, and even systems of education, religion, and governance. These don’t just help re-establish Native Americans’ sense of identity, they also provide a distinctly tribal understanding of people’s relationships to all living things, plants and animals included.

The right to self-determination

In order to achieve the above, Indigenous people also seek the right of self-determination – defined by Amnesty International as a binding principle of international law that refers to peoples’ right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. Tribes see self-determination as a necessary way to counteract the centuries of oppression by North American governments.

For years, colonizers and government forces slaughtered tribes and kidnapped Indigenous children to “re-educate” them in assimilationist schools where they weren’t allowed to speak their languages or express their cultural identities, denying them any connection to their heritage.

In addition to the right to self-govern, Indigenous self-determination includes establishing resources to address the high rates of health disparities, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, and discrimination that Native Americans face. Historic and continued injustices against Indigenous people created these problems, activists say, and their healing will require serious financial and community investments rather than mere well wishes.

Replacing Columbus Day

In the early 20th century, Italian-Americans lobbied for a national holiday recognizing Italian navigator Christopher Columbus as a way to instill pride amongst immigrant Italians. However, because Columbus’ diaries have revealed his willingness to horrifically brutalize the Native Americans he first encountered in the “New World,” there has been a growing movement to replace Columbus Day observances with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Naturally, some Italian-Americans and political leaders oppose the effort. But 20 U.S. states, a growing number of cities, and many numerous modern-day Indigenous people and allies currently celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a way to reclaim Indigenous pride while recognizing continued and historic injustices against their people.

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