My Complicated Relationship With Thanksgiving

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday, a holiday that has brought my family and friends together. A holiday that includes my favorite food: pumpkin pie. Actually I have two in my kitchen right now waiting to be taken to two Thanksgiving feasts later today.

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With my growing discomfort with the consumerism of Christmas, I have appreciated that Thanksgiving does not mean having to buy/receive presents. Instead, the gift of the holiday today is to be present with each other and to come to the table to share a meal together; a communion with loved ones.

Already today I have enjoyed seeing my family and friends post about what they are thankful for on social media. I have a lot to be thankful in my life at the moment. I have a wonderful wife and a family that I love. I have a great job working within a supportive office and a college full of amazing students. I have a huge network of friends who challenge me to be a better person and a better accomplice in my work.

But…

Thanksgiving as a holiday is very problematic in the first place. The lore associated with this holiday is mostly false. For example, yes there was probably a meal in 1621, but indigenous people had celebrated a harvest feast each autumn long before the European people that we now called Pilgrims arrived.

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Thanksgiving Myth!

The late Michael Dorris, a Modoc author, writes:

A year ago my older son brought home a program printed by his school; on the second page was an illustration of the “First Thanksgiving,” with a caption which read in part: “They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!”

On the contrary! The Pilgrims had literally never seen “such a feast,” since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided, or so legend has it, by the local tribe.

The indigenous people that resided in what we now know as Cape Cod, the Wampanoag people, greeted the people despite prior Europeans’ harsh treatment of them. In 1970 remarks prepared by Wamsutta James of the Wampanoag people, these new European arrivals continued that trend:

Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.

Wamsutta had prepared his remarks for the 350th Anniversary Celebration of the Europeans’ arrival at Plymouth Rock, but the organizers rejected his words. Then, Wamsutta was asked to give a sanitized speech written by the public relations staff of the event. He refused to do so and was uninvited altogether from speaking at the event.

Sadly, the organizers should have faced reality, instead of continuing with the myths of the good Pilgrims. Even 45 years after Wamsutta written these words, we need to still confront the lore and history of the Pilgrims coming to North America and the negative, brutal impact it had on Native Americans:

We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.

What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years?

(I highly suggest reading Chapter Three “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving” in Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W Loewen as a starting place to explore more about this history and to hear voices of Native Americans.)

For more insight on what has happened since 1621, Sarah Burris of Raw Story has a great article listing five ways that the US has “given thanks” to indigenous people. The five ways she lists are: Stolen Land, Andrew Jackson and his Trail of Tears, Re-Education and Cultural Genocide, Broken Treaties, and Murder.

She ends the article by writing:

What we owe the Native Americans is a more complicated question, but for sure it begins with a greater respect and extends well beyond the limited reparations we’ve given them over the years. Perhaps it begins with the reclaiming of holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving which have done nothing but perpetuate stereotypes and gloss over the history of violence and broken promises.

I would add that we need to deconstruct the whole mythology around the “founding of the New World” and realize the devastating impact of Manifest Destiny has had and continues to have on Native Americans.

In my previous work with the Lakota people living on Pine Ridge Reservation, I have seen up close the harm that Europeans and then our government has done to indigenous people over the last 400 years in North America. At the same time I have witnessed the resiliency of Native Americans to continue fighting for their right to their land and culture.

Today, on this day we call Thanksgiving, we, white European-North Americans, need to recognize this painful history and start supporting indigenous people in their fight to regain land and culture. This is why many people of color call this day Thanks-taking and Thanks-stealing.

I am thankful for this day for the opportunity to celebrate with loved ones and just to be present with them. At the same time, we need to acknowledge our ancestors’ brutal violence towards indigenous people and examine the ways we continue that violence today.

This is why I have a complicated relationship with the day we call Thanksgiving.