Thanksgiving, a holiday celebrated across the nation on the fourth Thursday of November, is a staple in American culture. In an Instagram poll that surveyed 200 Portland Public Schools students, over 90 percent said that they participate in the annual holiday in some form. Traditional celebrations include sitting around the table with loved ones, sharing something you are thankful for, eating beloved foods like mashed potatoes and turkey, and perhaps watching a football game, all while feeling a sense of patriotism. That sounds perfectly fine, however something is missing from this picture. The practice of Thanksgiving, which is usually celebrated by families who can afford to prepare grandiose meals and to fly relatives long distances to celebrate together, actively erases the stories of Indigenous people in this country. It also results in excessive waste and overconsumption, both in purchasing food products and the fact that the holiday starts off a season of consumerism as Black Friday follows closely behind. Thanksgiving should be a time to reflect and honor Indigenous communities by recognizing the bloody history of the holiday and striving to learn more, listen to one another, and of course, have gratitude.
The myth behind the “first Thanksgiving” is one of many single-sided narratives behind this holiday. Growing up, many were taught that the pilgrims and Indigenous Americans sat down and ate a long meal to celebrate the season’s harvest together. It was taught that the pilgrims were grateful for the Indigenous people’s hospitality. This widely believed myth was constructed during the American Civil War, and could not be further from the truth. One occurence in 1637 that has been mistaken as “the first Thanksgiving,” which was described vividly in Tommy Orange’s novel, “There, There,” consisted of the Massachusetts Bay Colony surrounding a village of 400-700 Pequot people, burning it to the ground, and shooting anyone that survived the blaze. Afterwards, the governor of the colony declared that it should be a day of Thanksgiving, since a “successful massacre” had occurred, and the holiday was born. In other colonies throughout the East Coast in the early 1600s, similar “Thanksgivings” were celebrated after slaughters of Indigenous Americans. This is an uncomfortable history, a history that teachers and parents may not want to tell their children, but telling them anything else would be a lie. Only in the last generation have non-indigenous students and families been learning the truth of Thanksgiving, the truth of this nation’s establishment. Americans must ask themselves how they can celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that includes, recognizes, and uplifts past, present, and future Indigenous communities. How can we practice Thanksgiving in a way that goes against the perpetual erasure of Indigenous experiences?
Franklin Senior Calvin Birmingham (he/him) had some ideas: “My family reads a land acknowledgement before we celebrate Thanksgiving, which is really cool. I think it’s a good way to keep ourselves in check, especially as a family of white people.” Though Native land acknowledgements can be a decent place to start, they often come across as “performative allyship,” that is, they don’t suffice in terms of uplifting Indigenous voices and experiences. While Birmingham recognized its brutal origins, Thanksgiving remains his favorite holiday. “[My family] doesn’t usually get to see each other, so it’s just a really nice excuse to have a meal together,” he said. He also believes that the holiday should be “rebranded,” that it needs to celebrate gratitude and togetherness and other traditional values, but without the fictitious commercial propaganda about its history.
Michel Lenihan (they/them), a communications and membership coordinator at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, shared their perspective on the national holiday. As a member of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, Lenihan stated, “[Indigenous Americans] have been here for millennia. Our history is long. It didn’t start when colonizers showed up. Learn about it and teach about it.” They explained that racism is a lack of knowledge and is perpetuated by ignorance. Instead of doing a land acknowledgment, Lenihan suggested that you instead use that time to listen and learn: “It’s not about acknowledging the land, but actually benefiting your community.” A valuable resource that Lenihan shared with me is a page called “From acknowledgement to action,” by Lisa J. Watt, which can be found on the Ecotrust website. There are a plethora of books written by Indigenous Americans that can help further your understanding of the holiday and of Native history, such as “How Can One Sell The Air?” a manifesto written by Chief Seattle, or “Reclaiming Two-Spirits,” by Gregory Smithers.
This Thanksgiving, take time to look into these resources with your family and loved ones.
There are many creative ways to celebrate Thanksgiving that are fun while also being aware of the holiday’s problematic history. Practices like reading or researching the history of the land you reside on from the voices of indigenous folks before eating your family dinner, and trying foods from different cultures each year are much better alternatives to the conventional Thanksgiving practices.
Any reluctance to a shift in Thanksgiving practices may be due to a love of tradition. The idea that, for hundreds of years, people of all backgrounds and ethnicities came together to feast on food harvested from American land, is a nice image, one that many want to believe and hold on to. Unfortunately, approaching Thanksgiving from this traditional perspective is ignorant of the trauma that Indigenous people experience with the genocide they suffered, and it is historically inaccurate.
This year, celebrate Thanksgiving in the many creative ways that you can, but include the accurate history and spread awareness! I highly encourage looking into the stories of Indigenous people, learning about the land prior to its colonization, showing up to events or celebrations of Indigenous cultures, trying Indigenous foods or recipes, and learning about the tribes in your area to honor the indigenous people whose land you reside on. This education goes far beyond Thanksgiving and these practices can be implemented into your everyday life. You cannot celebrate the true intentions and spirit of Thanksgiving without knowing and addressing its origins.