In fifth grade, Moakeah Rivera stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance. To her, America was only a country that had failed her ancestors.
Every year American’s celebrate Thanksgiving, but on reflection, the history of the holiday is missing a few pieces of the puzzle. Thanksgiving is meant to honor the union between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. As November rolls around, the glorification of these English settlers is ignited in the minds of all.
Rivera, a USC student studying anthropology and disruptive innovation, realized her heritage at a young age after learning about the mission system at her K-12 school in Southern California.
A skewed history
The California education system focuses heavily on praising Junipero Serra during children’s fourth grade education. Many students visit these institutions, now historic relics, and learn about the history of colonization and manifest destiny. California missions were established to convert Native Americans to Catholicism and expand European land.
What Rivera realized later is that while visiting those missions, she was seeing where her ancestors were enslaved. As a southern native belonging to the Kumeyaay tribe, Rivera grew up in Encinitas, close to San Diego.
“A lot of my realization came in early on,” Rivera said. “At the time, I did not acknowledge completely that I was a southern native and my tribe is one of those that were enslaved in those missions. I was visiting them and I had no clue.”
California’s education standards skip over the gruesome and unpleasant realities of the missions when retelling the history to fourth graders. This is only one way the system fails Native folks.
“That history caused me more damage to my perception when I really think about it,” said Rivera thoughtfully. “Within those moments, I felt like such an outsider because suddenly I was being compared with all my classmates and my teacher just kept pointing out how different I was.”
During the more intense moments of lecture, Rivera had to excuse herself from the classroom. Her experience in elementary school and beyond has created her strong self awareness.
Rivera only celebrated her first Thanksgiving last November with her former partner’s white family. The holiday festivities included land acknowledgement conversations and discussions of the flawed nature of colonialism.
“I celebrated my first Thanksgiving with my boyfriend’s family,” Rivera said. “It wasn’t really Thanksgiving because I was there, it was something different. They were able to recognize that I wasn’t so comfortable or at least that I truly didn’t acknowledge this holiday.”
The third Thursday in November is just another day for Rivera and her family, but for Kolton Nephew, it’s something different.
Growing up on a reservation in Arizona, Nephew celebrated a gratitude-inspired holiday every November. However, it was rebranded to be more about family and less about celebrating the relationships between Pilgrims and Natives.
“My Thanksgiving in the past looked like one big family on the rez cooking and making a bunch of different types of food and praying over the food,” Nephew said. “There is a lot of joking and people catching up and teasing you.”
Nephew’s family celebration includes pesky inquiries about significant others from college, sharing a meal and spending time with loved ones. Thanksgiving for Nephew has never focused on what it’s supposed to. For him and his family, it’s a time to gather and socialize.
Nephew is a student at USC and the co-founder and assistant director of the Native American Students Assembly. Both Rivera and Nephew are a part of the organization. His Navajo identity has led him to be a leader among his peers on campus.
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“Since joining NASA, there is a sense of belonging now at USC,” Nephew said. “As a Native student coming to USC, so far from the rez and all that I’ve known to a predominantly white institution, is a big culture shock. At times, you just don’t feel like you belong there or no one or you can’t click right away with anyone.”
However, it was not until his years in higher education that Nephew began to realize how much of history was missing from his previous experiences in academics.
“I didn’t really know the true meaning behind Thanksgiving,” Nephew said. “It’s just not common knowledge, you have to seek it out for yourself. In my first college years, I started being more into Native activism and understanding indigenous rights and sovereignty and building a platform for that voice.”
Having NASA has helped Nephew find a family at USC. His message to other young Natives looking to achieve any goals is to remember that they will always be supported.
“Trust your instinct, because there’s such a great support system behind you,” Nephew said. “A family, a community and everything that encapsulated the reservation and how tight knit it is.”
Rivera leads the Alpha Chi Omega sorority at USC as their current director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Going forward, Rivera will spearhead the meaning of the position.
“There aren’t a lot of BIPOC sorority members,” Rivera said. “I’ve been very open with how I feel and my goal is to make my house at least a safe space and an actual comfortable place where we can be ourselves.”
Beyond this November, Rivera hopes that the future of Thanksgiving can have a new meaning.
“Often, a lot of European Americans forget where they come from,” Rivera said. “Thanksgiving is a comfort zone. It’s supposed to allow them to transition into some mentality that it’s all OK because we got to the point where we are now. They can’t ignore the fact that [Native Americans] still exist. That’s what I really want taken away from it is just that we are here.”