Operation Thanksgiving Hope: Feeding Native Americans This Holiday Season

Most Americans cannot wait to celebrate Thanksgiving – from the savory taste of turkey and sweet smell of pumpkin pie to the time spent with loved ones we don’t see often. People across many cultures celebrate this day while blending in their own special customs and traditions. Unfortunately for Native Americans, this day of gathering and gratitude is bittersweet. It can be difficult to embrace the spirit of the holiday when the painful truth lingers in the back of our minds, especially as many live with hardship every single day.

The sugar-coated story teaches us that Thanksgiving commemorates a time when Puritans arrived on our shores and were warmly welcomed by the Wampanoag Tribe in 1621. This tribe showed them how to plant crops, forage for foods and survive in the ‘New World’. In exchange for the tribe’s hospitality, the fabricated story and images depict the Puritans and the Wampanoag celebrating side by side.

In actuality, the first official mention of a ‘Thanksgiving’ celebration occurred in 1637, after colonists brutally massacred an entire Pequot community and subsequently celebrated the victory. Despite its nefarious beginning, many Native Americans now observe the holiday along with the rest of the country – but any similarities stop at eating dinner with family.

Navajo Elders Betty and George receive their Thanksgiving meal. Tsaile, Apache County, AZ on the Navajo Nation

While the history of Thanksgiving is a fable, reservation life is very real. Deep poverty, soaring rates of joblessness, and lack of access to food and water are among the many challenges facing First Americans today. In 2021, up to 43% of Native children live in poverty. These are the descendants of Indigenous peoples who lived successfully off this land for thousands of years before colonization (and taught the settlers who came after them how to survive) – descendants now being subjected to the effects of unmet treaty obligations, imbalanced policies and decades of financial hardship.

Centuries of unjust living conditions, paired with the recent continued impact of COVID-19, will unfortunately leave many families without a Thanksgiving meal this year. PWNA’s Operation Thanksgiving Hope campaign is part of a massive effort to provide Thanksgiving meals to community members across reservations in the Northern Plains and Southwest. Our goal is to distribute healthy food for 6,500 people this year.  

Everyone deserves a warm meal on Thanksgiving Day, especially Native Americans. Our Native ancestors may not have had the chance to enjoy a ‘Thanksgiving’ meal with loved ones, but it’s on us to ensure that Native families can today. Please donate here.

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Replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day

No one can imagine all that Native Americans endured after the arrival of Christopher Columbus on these shores, largely because we do not talk honestly about it. Native communities continue to fight to protect their homes, their families and the only land they’d ever known. Rather than paying homage to someone whose legacy caused devastation for millions of Indigenous people, we believe in honoring those who proved to be resilient through it all – and celebrating their contributions to the U.S.

While long miscredited for discovering the ‘New World’, Christopher Columbus robbed Indigenous people of their foodways, languages and lifeways, and instead opened the door to a life of disease, genocide, land grabs and slavery.

This year, PWNA is encouraging everyone to sign our #NativeAware petition that supports House Bill 5473 to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day nationwide.  While we applaud President Biden’s proclamation of October 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day for 2021, we must demand a permanent change to this day every year.

A bill to change Columbus Day was first introduced in 1991. Since then, 14 states and more than 130 cities across the U.S. have already made the change, but we firmly believe more can be done. All signatures collected through the petition will be sent to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, on Oct. 20, 2021, in support of a demand for this necessary change.

Columbus Day became an official U.S. holiday in 1937 as part of an effort to incorporate heavily stigmatized Catholic Italians, such as Columbus, into American history. But enough is enough. For so many people, Columbus Day serves as a reminder of the pain and loss endured by Indigenous tribes and families – a pain passed down through the generations. It’s also inaccurate to say Columbus discovered a land that was already populated by millions of people for thousands of years.

Join our Indigenous Peoples’ Day movement today. Sign the petition and share it with your friends and loved ones to help permanently replace Columbus Day. Indigenous youth deserve to learn about the real U.S. history and take pride in Native American resilience. We can’t change the past or undo the harm, but we can make the future brighter for those who will come after us.

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This CFC, Remember Native American Students

Workplace giving is a significant factor in support of our work. Since 2011,  we have been approved as a national charity for participation in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). Currently listed under our program name, American Indian Education Fund, our CFC number is CFC charity code # 54766.

The CFC, known as “the world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign,” is the federal government’s answer to workplace giving and support for philanthropy. Annually, the CFC runs hundreds of organized campaigns to reach thousands of federal workers and raise millions of dollars for nonprofits. The total CFC effort helps postal, military, and Federal civilian workers, nationally and globally, to pledge payroll deductions for nonprofits providing health and human services.

Only some charities can participate in the CFC. Only after completing a rigorous application and review process that culminates in approval and selection by the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, DC is a charity deemed eligible and listed on the Best of CFC portal. To quality as a national charity, we must provide detailed documentation on the types of services delivered in at least 15 states, as well as the volume and value of those services and the beneficiaries in each state. This is in addition to meeting all the CFC’s financial and administrative requirements.

We are pleased to be included in the 2021 CFC campaign and that this important effort will help us raise more awareness about the American Indian population we serve and the work we do on remote reservations to help end the cycle of poverty. CFC pledge drives typically run from September to mid-December each year.

In addition to the CFC, our AIEF program is recognized as an Educate America federation charity.  If you or your organization are interested in learning more about workplace giving, please call 800-416-8102.

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Accessing and Protecting Nature’s Most Precious Resource: Water

Several recent articles and a recent conversation with friends about Standing Rock brought back the horrors endured by the Water Protectors who protested the Dakota pipeline build. The excessive use of police force, water cannons, chemical sprays and lockups on peaceful protesters whose actions were rooted in prayer was astonishing. Several Haskell Indian Nations University students sacrificed an entire semester to travel to Standing Rock and maintain solidarity for the protest.

Even as No-DAPL protesters continue fighting for the protection of clean water in the Dakotas, another water crisis is brewing in the drought-ridden Southwest. As one PWNA Board member noted, “water is the next battlefront” for Tribal communities.

The Bureau of Land Reclamation, under the direction of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, must contend with serious and encroaching water issues. Drought is creating adverse consequences not only for people in the Southwest but also for livestock and other animals. If there isn’t enough water for animals, there soon will not be enough water for people.

Water concerns cut across jurisdictions, federal agencies and administrations, and Tribal communities that PWNA serves are no strangers to contaminated drinking water. Yet, several iterations of the Clean Water Act, as well as court appeals and regulatory challenges, are bogging down the implementation of any substantive solutions and it is clear that the water issues will not be resolved anytime soon. However, this could change going forward, as some water campaigns and policy commitments have been well received. Many constituents praised New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for her 30×30 campaign that seeks to protect 30% of New Mexico’s land and water by 2030. This puts New Mexico at the forefront of creating a water policy or roadmap that others can build on, including neighboring states.

In Arizona, the federal government declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, resulting in mandatory cutbacks to water allotments. This presents inevitable challenges and adverse impacts to farmers, animals and growing residential communities. These reductions are part of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and are likely to compound at a faster rate in the future.

This is where the juxtaposition of water protection and water availability strikes me. There is a clear apex of policy and resources and yet it seems the issues are pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand, Native Americans are fighting to keep their water sources clean. On the other, they are fighting to have any water at all.

Instead of building pipelines to carry tar sands across the country, maybe we should build them to transport water. This is an oversimplified solution, but our elected national and local leaders have a responsibility to make decisions, develop policies and identify solutions that are permanent, sustainable and responsible and to ensure proper stewardship and equitable distribution of this precious resource.

After all, the Lakota phrase that inspired the Standing Rock protesters is as true today as it was five years ago – Water is Life (“Mni Wiconi”).

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Searching for MMIWG Relatives and Racial Justice for Tribes

Recently, major networks highlighted two cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG): Arden Pepion, a 3-year-old from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana (still missing), and Carla Yellow Bird from the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota (found, murdered).

Native American families and tribal communities are left feeling isolated in their search for loved ones, particularly when they go missing outside of tribal lands. These horrific and frequent cases are not new to Indigenous communities but rather a result of colonization and the complex web of jurisdictional governance between tribes, states and federal officials.

Federally recognized tribes have a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government. The National Congress of American Indians describes this as “the obligation of the federal government to protect tribal self-governance, lands, assets, resources and treaty rights, and to carry out the directions of federal statutes and court cases.” States are also part of the equation – and this three-pronged approach to justice often collides, leaves gaps or overlaps, generating a convoluted maze for Native families to negotiate during a crisis.

The Department of Justice and more recently the Department of the Interior have finally created special groups to help address missing and murdered Indian persons (MMIP).

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland  created the Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) in April this year. “The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize [MMIP] cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” Secretary Haaland said.

Operation Lady Justice launched in 2019 established seven teams to review MMIP cold cases in collaboration with tribal, federal, state and local entities. Also affirming the U.S. government’s failure to guide funding and resources toward these efforts, President Biden said, “Our treaty and trust responsibilities require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency.”

Indeed, the utmost urgency drives Native families who are seeking their MMIW relatives. Not a day goes by without a social media alert about MMIPs and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Two Spirits (MMIWG2S). Tribal communities are acutely aware of the immediacy needed after an MMIW call out and that it takes quick action by many to respond to the crisis.

Recently while quickly scrolling through Facebook, I was stopped by a familiar face smiling back at me. A young Native girl, whose parents and grandmother I value as an essential part of my community, was missing. I helped in the local search that day and, as a mother of three grown daughters, my heart was heavy. Fortunately, this case concluded same day with a “she’s been found safe,” but so many more go unresolved and fuel the mourning of a life unlived.

Native families and tribal communities have mobilized throughout this chaos to support one another in finding their MMIW relatives, even as they await justice and recognition by state and federal governments of the catastrophic failures in protecting their citizens. To learn more about how you can help in your community, please visit www.niwrc.org.

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Food and Water: A Basic Human Right But Not An Equal Opportunity

Access to food and water is a basic human right. Unfortunately, 1 in 9 people are food insecure in the U.S. More specifically, 1 in 4 Native Americans are food insecure. In fact, 60% of counties with a majority Native population have a high rate of food insecurity, despite comprising less than 1% of all U.S. counties.

The many issues that overlap with food insecurity, including housing, social isolation, chronic or acute health problems with limited healthcare access, and low wages or unemployment, only exasperate the difficulty. And with COVID-19, many Native Americans were left in crowded homes and vulnerable to the virus. Many lives were lost – proportionately more than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. – and many tribal communities continue to face a COVID-19 burden.

This complexity of challenges makes our work with tribal partners even more dire. Low food security and water supply is an everyday issue on  remote reservations. Nutritious food that is affordable is even harder to come by. And while many food banks operate across our service area, a recent study by America’s Second Harvest shows that most food banks lack an adequate supply of food to meet the demand, which is higher than ever.

The U.S. establishment of the reservation system forced many tribes to relocate and rebuild in often barren lands and unfamiliar ecosystems that were less conducive to harvesting. Simultaneously, their traditional food supply was replaced by unhealthy foods, such as large rations of sugar and flour. The effects of these government initiatives are still impacting Native Americans, now two times more likely to have diabetes than other Americans.

Through our Northern Plains Reservation Aid and Southwest Reservation Aid programs, our goal is to address the immediate needs of families who often worry about where their next meal may come from. We provide staple foods to Elderly Nutrition programs, food boxes to food pantries, emergency food boxes, food and water when disasters strike, and community meals to help our tribal partners boost engagement during the holidays.

PWNA is committed to giving hope through food for generations to come but can only do so with your generous support.

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Indigenous History and Its Effect on Education Equity in South Dakota

I’ve been following the recent proposed changes to the social studies standards by the South Dakota Department of Education (DOE). These revisions are conducted every five to seven years by a group of educators representing districts across the entire state. While the most recent review resulted in some changes, these revisions have caused some discourse, especially since the South Dakota DOE edited the revisions before releasing the revised standards to public for comment.

Unfortunately, the teaching of South Dakota’s history has never been particularly thorough when it comes to Indigenous studies and the new proposed standards maintain – and even further diminish – those standards. These social studies revisions have placed the state at the center of a debate that brings into question whether education equity is factored into these discussions and decisions.

Education equity implies giving every single student the necessary support to succeed, regardless of race, gender or economic status. However, the revised proposal, titled “South Dakota Social Studies Content Standards: Preparing students to be college, career, and life ready citizens,” feels contradictory in nature. How can we prepare students for college, career and life if we’re omitting basic truths of history? Particularly, the history of many Native students’ ancestors.

As a citizen of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and graduate of the South Dakota education system, I have experienced the state’s teachings first-hand. During my time in the public school system, I felt as though we didn’t substantially cover Indigenous peoples’ history, nor was the history being taught accurate. It took countless family discussions and, ultimately, leaving my home state to seek out an education on these topics on my own to feel well-versed on the subject. This shouldn’t be acceptable, particularly in a state that’s home to nine Indian reservations and rich in Indigenous culture. In fact, my high school has the highest percentage of Native American students of any off-reservation secondary school in the state.

Education equity is meant to create a level playing field for students with fewer resources and yet, we continue to see the same low graduation rates. In South Dakota, Native American students consistently lack the resources to attain a quality education, and the erasure of Indigenous history further contributes to the continuous failures of the state’s public school system. The state reported that 54% of Native American students graduated on-time in 2019, compared with 85% of non-Native students. Where is the equity in these graduation outcomes?

The same is true for Indigenous communities across the country. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit against the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Board of Public Education on behalf of five Montana Indian Tribes, challenging the state to uphold its responsibilities under the Indian Education For All Act of 1999. In North Dakota, legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring all elementary and secondary public and non-public schools in the state to include curriculum on Native American history.

Do they leave it to the courts to decide what it means to provide a fair and inclusive education for students of all backgrounds, or will they get there on their own? The question remains for South Dakota.

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PWNA’s Annual Backpack Drive: You Can Make All The Difference

August is National Back-to-School Month and families are preparing their shopping lists with all they need for the new school year. However, many families who reside in reservation communities do not have the means to purchase even basic supplies, such as paper and pencils.

PWNA’s annual Backpack Drive helps ensure students in the tribal communities they serve have backpacks, pencils, notebooks and other items for their first day in the classroom. The drive is hosted by the American Indian Education Fund, a PWNA program that focuses on improving education opportunities and retention, from kindergarten to college.

School supplies are essential to a student’s learning and success, but with nearly two-thirds of Native American children living in impoverished or low-income households, it’s no surprise these items are inaccessible for parents whose budgets are already stretched incredibly thin. In addition, barely half of the students who attend schools led by the Bureau of Indian Education graduate from high school, compared to the national 88% graduation rate, so every advantage counts. 

The Backpack Drive is running through Sept. 30 and our hope is to equip more than 15,000 K-12 students with backpacks and essentials as they head back to school this year, many in person for the first time since school closed last spring. The backpacks will be distributed to students at 65 schools across our service area. The distributions will be coordinated by our school partners to coincide with registration and fall enrollment.

For more on how PWNA is helping to break the cycle of poverty through education, or to donate, visit www.nativepartnership.org/backpacks. Your support is much needed and appreciated!

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Scorching Summer Pose Threats to Lives and More on the Reservations

The season for fun in the sun is here, with cookouts, hiking, swimming and more. In the Southwest, however, summers also bring record-breaking heatwaves, droughts and wildfires, posing an increased risk to inhabitants. The U.S. Forest Service has already restricted access to some public lands this summer to reduce fire threat.

Akin to last year’s record, some 20 wildfires have burned throughout Arizona, five in New Mexico and more than 30 across California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado –scorching tens of thousands of acres of land and impacting far more than the physical landscape.

Rafael Tapia, Jr. - PWNA VP of Programs

In addition to devastating the land itself, wildfires threaten animal life, natural water systems, economic and social norms, environment and cultural resources. They also impact living communities, recreational areas and revenue streams, and often displace both the people who reside in those areas and the livestock on which they depend.

For Tribal communities, harsh summer conditions only make pre-existing challenges more acutely felt, such as inadequate access to food and housing, limited job opportunities and over-stressed budgets. Equally concerning is the lasting disruption to lands that are both sacred sites and ancestral food sources for Native Americans. Take, for example, two previous wildfires that still impact the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona.

The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire was the ninth largest wildfire in U.S. history. The flames burned through more than 462,600 acres throughout north-central Arizona, including 280,000 acres of Tribal land. It damaged, and in some cases destroyed, ecosystem resources and disrupted the water cycle within the ponderosa pine forests.

Less than a decade later, the 2011 Wallow Fire became the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, burning more than 538,000 acres and once again disrupting life for the Tribe residing in the region. The increased risk of fires resulted in the near closure of the Fort Apache Timber Company and a loss of more than 200 jobs. The long-lasting impact is reflected in today’s unemployment and poverty rates in the community.

Our reservation partners in the Southwest often request emergency relief provisions from PWNA in the summer months. We also provide summer care packages to Native Elders proactively, knowing the risk and outages they face not only from wildfires, but unbearable heat, drought and thunderstorms.

Unfortunately, negligence has resulted in many human-caused wildfires that had major consequences. If you’re headed outdoors this summer, please remember to take precaution and follow safety guidelines in remote or recreational areas. The more we protect the land, the better we can preserve the history and memories of those who cherished it long before us.

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Partner Q&A: Caring for Navajo and Zuni Elders in Gallup, New Mexico

Year-round, PWNA partners with hundreds of Tribal programs in the Southwest and Northern Plains to support their program goals and address the unique needs of their communities. This month, we’re spotlighting program partner Lillie Begay who coordinates the Sunny Day Assisted Living program in Gallup, New Mexico.   

PWNA: What is the primary focus of your program?

Lillie B:  Sunny Day is a senior residential facility serving Elders from the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni who need to be in a group setting. We assist with activities such as transporting residents to medical appointments, getting prescriptions filled, supporting Activities of Daily Living (ADL), providing meals and providing education in memory, personal care and related topics. Our main goal is to keep residents safe and happy by providing a welcoming and cozy environment.

PWNA: How did you first hear about PWNA and how long have you been a partner?

Lillie B: Sunny Day has had a partnership with PWNA since 2017, which was before I started. Since I’ve been here (about three years), we have collaborated several times and I enjoy the continued partnership.

PWNA: How has PWNA supported your program over the years?

Lillie B: PWNA assists Sunny Day primarily through the Residential service offered by their Southwest Indian Relief Council (SWIRC) program; they’ve helped us improve our overall programming, resources and results. PWNA delivers essential supplies to us on a regular basis, personal items such as toothbrushes, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, bodywash, socks and toilet paper for the residents. Used as incentives, they help us keep Elders engaged during activities and arm them with everyday items some cannot afford on their own. In addition, this saves Elders money, so they have more freedom to buy the things they typically don’t purchase or haven’t had in a while. This boosts their morale and mental and emotional well-being. Most importantly, the supplies from PWNA make our residents feel loved and aware that they are not alone.

The facility also saves money with PWNA deliveries of PPE (face masks, gloves sanitizers), cleaning supplies, bottled water, bedding, detergent and paper products (paper towels, paper plates, disposable cups), and craft products.  We also participated in PWNA’s Holiday service last year, a welcome end to a year of pandemic.

(Lillie also noted Sunny Day has a garden that PWNA provided seeds for, and after learning about our community investment garden projects, she’s interested in learning more.)

PWNA: What do you want others to know about your community?

Lillie B: Gallup was hit particularly hard with COVID-19. It became everyone’s responsibility to keep each other safe. The community pulled together and the donations we received from PWNA in PPE supplies made a difference. We’re thankful PWNA was willing to assist us, even during the pandemic, which cast many challenges upon the Elders. We had to separate everyone and ban visitors from entering the building. It was painful to watch the Elders go without social interaction for so long. They were unable to eat together as they normally do in the common area; nor could they participate in their routine activities such as cake walks, puzzles, adult coloring or simply watching TV together. I could tell it was lonely for them and another impossible challenge was grieving and fear from the physical loss of friends and family members due to the virus. Finally, with vaccinations, our facility is slowly lifting restrictions. Visitors are allowed, but masks, temperature checks, social distancing, and pandemic questionnaires are still required. I am thankful to work in a place that makes a difference in the lives of others and that we were able to weather through the storm together.

PWNA: What else do you want others to know about your PWNA partnership and facility?

Lillie B: PWNA has been a good program for our aging Native citizens. I do my best to make them all feel good during their transition to assisted living and make sure they feel welcomed, in part thanks to support from our PWNA partnership. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is hearing stories from the Elders in their Native language. I am also fluent in Navajo and this helps me connect with my Diné residents.

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