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Autumn Rose Williams (Courtesy photo)

For the East End’s Native people — who populated this land long before settlers arrived and drove them away in the 17th century — Thanksgiving is many things at once. It’s an opportunity to come together and celebrate the harvest, yes. But it’s also a moment to mourn and honor ancestors and grapple with the complicated legacy of the past.

Autumn Rose Williams has thought about it a lot. Born and raised on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, Williams went to the Ross School in East Hampton and Virginia Commonwealth University, then worked at the Peconic Land Trust and as director of communications for the Shinnecock Nation. This May, she moved to Washington D.C., where she works as a communications coordinator for the Administration for Native Americans.

During her reign as Miss Native USA in 2017 and 2018, Williams had the opportunity to learn from tribal leaders across the country, supporting the water protectors at Standing Rock in South Dakota and visiting the Mashpee Wampanoag people, descendents of the tribe involved in the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

She spoke earlier this month about Thanksgiving from the indigenous perspective, why she celebrates two holidays in the month of November and her favorite food and memories of the season.

How do you and other Shinnecock families celebrate Thanksgiving?

On Shinnecock, we have two Thanksgivings. The Thursday before the official holiday in the U.S., the tribe always hosts a community dinner at the Shinnecock Commuity Center, which we call Nunnowa, which is the Shinnecock word for harvest time. Growing up, I always went to that community Thanksgiving, and that was a ton of fun. We would eat traditional Shinnecock foods, like succotash and samp, which is a type of stew that we eat made of hominy and corn. We’d also have the Shinnecock drum group, the Young Blood Singers, do dances, and we’d hear from elders.

Most recently, there have been vendors there, people who make traditional jewelry or wampum, if you want to buy any of that. We also use the time to educate people. This year was a census year, so at last year’s gathering we had a census table to ensure the community had an accurate count.

We do a lot of singing, and we have community call and response dances.With the pandemic still going on, this year I don’t think we’ll have the large gathering we’ve always had.

Williams visiting with members of the Wampanoag tribe during her reign as Miss Native USA. (Courtesy photo)

Why do you think it’s important for Native people, and the Shinnecock Nation in particular, to celebrate at this time of the year, even as many Native people have complicated feelings about the traditional Thanksgiving holiday?

As Shinnecock people, we celebrate the different seasons, and each time period of the year has a different meaning. During fall, that’s when you gather all the work you did over the summer to yield a harvest, so you celebrate that time. Each tribe calls it something different. When I was Miss Native USA, we were highlighting the Wampanoag people in Massachusettts, who had the first Thanksgiving. When we think about Thanksgiving as we’re taught in school, we don’t learn about what that experience was, and who were the indigenous people who had that interaction [with the white settlers].

Thanksgiving is seen as a day of mourning, but it’s also still celebrated in the way we celebrate today. We think about coming together with loved ones and sharing a meal and having time to spend with loved ones and be grateful. I think that’s a beautiful message of Thanksgiving and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating it in that way. That’s one thing I learned when I went to the Wampanoag celebration; they still have Thanksgiving and recognize the true meaning.

In the present day, it’s really about de-colonizing the holiday, in the sense of bringing the full understanding of it back to the picture. The first Thanksgiving [in 1621], it was actually the European settlers celebrating their harvest, and that they were able to survive. They were celebrating and would put gunshots into the air, and the Wampanoag people were hunting nearby and heard the gunshots, and they came to see if anything was wrong. They weren’t originally invited.   

The narrative we’re taught in schools present day is because of the Civil War: President Lincoln used the story to try and bring unity between the Confederate states and the North. That’s why, present day, the thought behind it is to come together. I find it so intriguing in the times we live in now, when we’re so divided. It’s bad that throughout history, Native stories have been omitted, but the actual intention behind Thanksgiving bringing unity during the Civil War is so beautiful.

It’s bad that throughout history, Native stories have been omitted, but the actual intention behind Thanksgiving bringing unity during the Civil War is so beautiful.

Ok, so you mark the National Day of Mourning and are always cognizant of the true history surrounding the holiday, and you celebrate both Nunnowa and traditional Thanksgiving. Tell me how those two celebrations differ for you and other tribal members.

A lot of people on Shinnecock celebrate Nunnowa the Thursday before, but the official day of Thanksgiving, we celebrate as most Americans do. We have turkey, we have stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies. We have family gatherings, and we have family drama. That fourth Thursday of November, that’s more intimate, with your immediate family; first cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents.

Nunnowa is an invitation for all tribal members. On Shinnecock, we’re all related in some way, so on Thanksgiving I usually go house hopping. I’ll go to one uncle’s house for drinks, then go to another aunt’s house for the meal, and grandma’s for dessert and so on.

Autumn Rose Williams (Courtesy photo)

What are some of your best memories from years past, both from Nunnowa and Thanksgiving?

Both of my parents are Black and Shinnecock. I spent most of my life on the reservation, but my mother grew up in the Uniondale/Freeport area. At one point she lived near a family from New Orleans, so there are certain dishes my mom makes that are very southern, like gumbo. My uncle can make a mean seafood gumbo. In my family, the ones who can cook compete during the holidays and we made the gumbo for Thanksgiving one year and hands down it was the best thing I ever had.

One thing I think about now that I’m older is when I was younger and going to Nunnowa, I always loved to dance. And as an adult now, and being in quarantine, I’d throw some music on and start dancing because what else is there to do? Now that I’m living away from the reservation, I wish that when I was younger I had paid more attention to the social dances.

So now when I’m there I stand by the drum to learn our songs. I talk to the people who carry our songs and ask them to teach me, and I ask them, ‘Can we practice this again?’ because I really want to learn the songs, now that I’m an adult and eventually want to have my own kids. We sing songs for all different events, and each song has a different meaning. One distinct memory I have is how important our social songs are and how our songs have so much teaching and history wrapped into something that’s just so fun.

Looking back on some of your experiences, what are you most grateful for?

When I was Miss Native USA, I went and spent time with the Wampanoag people, my mom made a point to come with me, because the two northeastern tribes were very connected with their histories and cultures. I was so thankful that my mom came with me, because there are certain things she made sure I knew we are supposed to do.

When I gave speeches, I made sure to recognize the land I was on and give thanks. That was something I was taught. And I saw how their community is set up in a very traditional way, and how we used to have it that way too. They have a grandmothers council, which is really important, because the women in the tribe raise the children, and see them from infancy to adulthood and know them so well and how they change and what their personality is, so that helps with things in the tribe. Having my mom there with me, that really stood out, having her teach me how to show respect.