Native American representation in Thanksgiving movies and TV shows is still problematic, FYI

We made it through summer festival season and Halloween with, at least it would seem, fewer people dressing up like “Indians” or “Native Americans.” Everyone knows better by now, right? We have certainly written several stories to remind people. But now it’s Thanksgiving, and what to my wondering eyes did appear all over my Facebook newsfeed? That’s right: All my friends’ children dressed up like Pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving programs — including some of my friends’ children who are actually, like me, American Indian. Were they cute? Oh my goodness…They are always cute. But it’s less cute to consider that, somewhere out there, an adult thought it was a good idea.

Costume stores even sell Pilgrim (sometimes “sexy Pilgrim”) and “Native American” costumes. (At least they’ve moved on from calling them “Indian,” right?). So presumably, people old enough to know better are still buying them.

But it’s easy to see why people would think it’s fine to dress children up in construction paper headdresses on Thanksgiving. For years, television shows and movies have portrayed the story of “the first Thanksgiving” as a time when Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive their first year in the New World (new to whom?) and they all had a feast to celebrate their friendship — and often, people were dressed up as “Indians.” Of course, we now realize the actual story is much more complicated. The indigenous people of what would become the United States did not always welcome immigrants, and the Pilgrims were definitely not good friends to the people they found when their ships reached land.

In fact, here are just a few of the ways television and movies have handled the story of “the first Thanksgiving” over the years. While some are more progressive than others, it’s important to note that none are perfect when it comes to Native representation and inclusivity in the media.

1The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn’t (1972)

Back in the olden days, cartoons were not on television 24 hours a day, so it was very exciting when an animated special came on in the evening, which they often did around the holidays. That is how we got this movie, which is about a squirrel who saves Thanksgiving by rescuing two little boys — one a Pilgrim and one the son of Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanogs, who are the “Indians” in the real Thanksgiving story.

While Massosoit did actually have sons, this is not a true story…though I probably didn’t need to tell you that, since it’s not often that real squirrels save little boys and are then honored at the first Thanksgiving feast. Anyway, it is one in a long line of stories that show Pilgrims and “Indians” finding true friendship…the kind of friendship in which one party would never deliberately take the land of the other…oh wait…

2A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

When Linus tells the story of the first Thanksgiving, he reminds his friends that the Pilgrims invited their friend, “the great Indian chief, Massasoit, who brought 90 of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food.” It is interesting to note that this show aired in 1973, the same year that the American Indian Movement led a three-month occupation at Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in protest of the treatment of indigenous people.

3Happy Days, “The First Thanksgiving” (1978)

When everyone is more interested in watching football than sharing the fellowship of Thanksgiving (or helping in the kitchen), Mrs. Cunningham tells the story of the first Thanksgiving in a memory sequence starring — who else? — Fonzie. The cast, dressed as Pilgrims and “Indians,” acts out the story of the first Pilgrims, who wanted to host a dinner in celebration of the harvest. Fonzie wants to invite the “Indians,” but the pilgrims consider them savages and want to drive them away.

Long story short: Fonzie is put in the stocks for his allyship until he is able to convince the Pilgrims that they should all be friends — by pointing out that they had come to this land for freedom and it would be hypocritical to take it away from someone else.

4Small Wonder, “Thanksgiving Story” (1986)

I had the joy of living through an era in which a show like Small Wonder could exist. It’s about a man who invented a robot so lifelike that it lives with his family as a daughter. Despite her stereotypical robot voice and odd behavior, nobody in the neighborhood figures it out.

In this Thanksgiving episode, VICKI (Voice Input Child Identicant) makes Thanksgiving dinner for the family while wearing a feather headband. But before that, she suggests this punishment for her brother, who had lied to his parents earlier: “Do what the Indians did in 1621. Tie him to a tree, cover him with honey, and let the ants eat him for Thanksgiving.” Cue laugh track.

5Addams Family Values (1993)

In this movie, a stereotypical Thanksgiving day program put on by children at summer camps begins. At first, we are asked to laugh at the clueless Pilgrims’ patronizing speech about understanding the primitive ways of the “savages” who are coming to dinner. But then Wednesday Addams arrives, dressed as “Pocahontas” (a “Chippewa,” which the real Pocahontas was, of course, not). She goes off script to describe what will eventually happen to indigenous peoples (living in mobile homes, selling bracelets by the side of the road). Then, she says, “And for all these reasons, I’ve decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground.”

Children dressed as “Indians” rush in, torch the set, and tie up the camp counselors, accompanied by music reminiscent of westerns. I believe we are supposed to be grateful for Wednesday’s proactive allyship…

6Roseanne, “The Last Thursday in November” (1995)

Imagine that…a television show actually hired real, live indigenous actors to be part of their Thanksgiving episode! In this episode, Oneida/Mohawk/Cree comedian Charlie Hill, playing D.J.’s teacher, came with his family to the Connor home for Thanksgiving. He appeared in a storytelling sequence in which the Native people invited the Pilgrims (played by the cast members) to a feast when they find they have an abundance of food. The Native women teach the Pilgrim women about feminism (basically), and then the story returns to modern times. Hill leads the family in a round dance…and how weird that this show is so sensitive and educational about indigenous-American relations.

7Rugrats, “The Turkey Who Came to Dinner” (1997)

Gather round, ’90s children, and let me tell you the tale of the “Nakie Americans.” You know how Rugrats is. All kinds of storylines are going on, from Angelica’s parade to everyone trying to save the Thanksgiving turkey to, of course, Didi telling the story of the first Thanksgiving. Tommy hears “Nakie Americans,” leading Chuckie to ask if he has to take off his clothes to wear the feathered headband that the others are wearing when he arrives. The story of the friendship between the “Penguins and Nakie Americans” gets lost in the shuffle, but this episode shows that paper headdresses were still considered a normal part of Thanksgiving in 1997.

8Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Pangs” (1999)

Xander releases a Chumash spirit called Hus (played by a non-Native actor) while working construction for a cultural center. Hus is, of course, seeking vengeance for his people. He makes Xander sick with diseases brought by the Europeans, and he kills several people. While Willow tries to make everyone understand that Hus has a point, Spike says, “You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations do. It’s what Caesar did, and he’s not goin’ around saying, ‘I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it.’ The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.”

In the end, Buffy and friends kind of agree that a fighting spirit, not understanding, is required. Buffy kills Hus with his own knife while he is in the form of a bear, and everyone eats Thanksgiving dinner on a table with arrows still embedded in it. Presumably, they eventually build the cultural center so they can learn about indigenous people who used to live in their town. (The real Chumash still live in California, in case you were wondering.)

9The West Wing, “Indians in the Lobby” (2001)

In this episode, one storyline has an exhausted C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) tasked with dealing with two representatives of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians (played by native actors Gary Farmer and Georgina Lightning), who refuse to leave the White House lobby until they are allowed to speak with someone about the public health crisis on their reservation. (“Indians on the day before Thanksgiving. Wow. Ironic,” she says.) While she attempts to find someone to speak with them, they educate her on the history of broken treaties with the United States. They never do get to speak with anyone, but she does invite them to her office to make an appointment for the following Monday.

Then…they are never heard from again on the show, which sounds pretty realistic, actually. Also realistic: The Native storyline is way overshadowed by the fact that this is the episode in which President Bartlet calls the Butterball hotline.

10Gilmore Girls, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” (2002) 

Okay, yes. That is a shot of Rory and Lane dressed as Pilgrims on Thanksgiving, and where there are people dressed as Pilgrims, there are usually people dressed as “Indians.” At least we don’t see them. What we do see is Luke being asked what they should be thankful for, and he says, “Well, that we’re not Native Americans who got their land stolen in exchange for smallpox-infested blankets.” You can always count on him.

While this particular episode is better than others, one line from a main character does not nearly cover the breadth of what’s behind the first Thanksgiving. More must be done. More can always be done.

11Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Finds her Mom!” (2016)

Confession: I can’t stand this show because of Jacqueline. I watched it until I came across this character, who is a white-passing Sioux (played by a non-Native actress), and I was too annoyed to continue. But not every Native viewer feels that way. At any rate, in this episode, Jacqueline finds out that her boyfriend’s family owns the Washington Redskins when they visit for Thanksgiving. She declares it a dealbreaker, but instead of breaking up, they vow to take on the issue together. That doesn’t mean I’m going to start watching the show. However, it does, perhaps, show that Thanksgiving episodes are starting to reflect actual Native people living lives in the present day.

Taking all of this into account, one thing can be said for sure: We still have a long road ahead of us.

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