“The first Thanksgiving is our last supper.”
November is a fraught month for Native Americans. And despite November being National Native American Heritage Month, which honors Indigenous peoples and invites a multitude of programming for organizations across the US, Indigenous people are still confronted with the colonialist folklore of Thanksgiving. One of the most scathing—and definitely one of the funniest—protests against the pervasive mythos of Thanksgiving arrived from an unlikely source: the Thanksgiving play put on at Camp Chippewa depicted in Addams Family Values (1993). While it might be unusual that the thirty-year-old movie clip continuously streams on social media and in Native Studies classrooms across the US, it’s undeniably gratifying, particularly for Native audiences. Good satire will do that, interrogate powers that oppress and exploit, but great satire will add years to one’s life. Wendy Red Star’s work falls into the latter category; her photograph The Last Thanks audaciously conveys this.
In The Last Thanks, Red Star wears a traditional Apsáalooke (Crow) elk-tooth dress and beaded accoutrements. She is seated “centerstage” at a long picnic-blanket-laden table with a cast of comical-looking skeletons adorned in construction paper war bonnets—the kind elementary school children don for their Thanksgiving festivities. At first glance their hands seem to suggest the proverb “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” Also seated at the table and off-center looms an oversized inflatable turkey wearing a pilgrim’s hat. The surreal cast of characters look like something from a South Park episode. The table is strewn with a cornucopia of American Spirit cigarettes and cash, dessert cakes, processed cheese, bologna, and Wonder bread—foods that Red Star said she ate during visits to her grandmother’s house.
In addition to spanking settlers for their favorite autumnal feast, Red Star takes to task the other “giant inflatable turkey in the room,” per se, Western religion by way of the iconic The Last Supper. Red Star has described the piece, saying, “the first Thanksgiving is our last supper.” Considering all the ways that occupation and imperialism have desecrated ancestral lands and places sacred to Indigenous peoples, profaning American values and colonialist religious beliefs pales by comparison.
The Last Thanks was assembled and photographed in the same year as Red Star’s other tableau-inspired self-portraits, “Four Seasons,” which she described in an interview with Josh T. Franco as some of the most important works of her career. Red Star affirmed that “Four Seasons” was “a little tongue and cheek,” and that she was inspired by watching John Waters’s films. She went on to say that she’d been in graduate school when Catherine Opie and Robert Gober visited and they talked about “Four Seasons”—this was when Red Star first heard the word “tableau.” “I was interested in sets and found out that I could rent objects—that’s the way that it worked for movie sets. And then there was the influence of other grad students, especially one who had these seventies photomural backdrops, and he showed me where you can get them.”
The Last Thanks in its color-saturated glory might hint at controversy, and its clownish skeleton “crew” do hit a raw nerve that alludes to bones having risen from beneath the ground of that table, of genocide, but like much of Red Star’s work, her perspectives escape the heavy-handedness of such themes by her facetious use of humor.