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Thanksgiving observances often skip historical violence against Native Americans

Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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LAWRENCE — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback recently signed a pre-Thanksgiving proclamation apologizing on behalf of the people of the state for the wrongs committed against Native American tribes, a rare acknowledgement this time of year, according to research from the University of Kansas.

Tugce Kurtis, a KU graduate psychology student who led the recent study, said that recognizing a painful shared past could serve to advance social healing today.

“A lot of psychologists talk about the necessity to acknowledge past events that were harmful or traumatic,” said Kurtis. “Confronting this past is a way to come to terms with it, and to resolve past issues and barriers. Giving voice to these kind of forgotten, denied, repressed and silenced memories can produce more healthy relationships with respect to intergroup relations and serve as a means to promote reconciliation and restorative justice.”

Kurtis and fellow researchers Glenn Adams, associate professor of social psychology at KU, and Michael Yellow Bird, professor of behavioral and social sciences at Humboldt State University, studied presidential Thanksgiving proclamations by past presidents.

The researchers found that the proclamations failed to note bloodier aspects of the history between European Americans and the indigenous tribes of North America.

“Every year the president will proclaim the fourth Thursday of November to be a day of Thanksgiving,” said Kurtis. “We looked at eight proclamations by President George W. Bush and eight by President Bill Clinton. We looked to see whether these proclamations mentioned indigenous peoples, or if they made any mention of historical wrongdoing.”

Kurtis said neither the Republican nor Democratic president broached the topic of violence toward Native American tribes that accompanied U.S. westward expansion.

“Not one proclamation mentioned historical wrongdoing,” she said. “Only six of them, from Clinton’s proclamations, even mention indigenous peoples.”

Using volunteers, Kurtis and her colleagues also studied how the presidential proclamations could influence readers’ perceptions of Thanksgiving, and how patriotism affects attitudes toward Thanksgiving proclamations.

The work appeared in an article published recently in the scientific journal Memory.


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