Often, on the last Thursday of November, American families gather around the dinner table to eat and appreciate the blessings in their lives. For many, Thanksgiving is a favorite “holiday.” In the twenty-first century, it may be depicted as a happy family eating lots of food and soon rushing off for Black Friday sales. However, this picture is painted for those who have the money to afford a supermarket turkey, a home to gather in, and the privilege of blissfully living on stolen land. For hundreds of Native American nations and tribes, this holiday is a reminder of the genocide committed against them by European colonizers, which began almost four hundred years ago. A new tradition of anti-celebrating Thanksgiving is long overdue. Here’s why.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Not a Native American holiday. This means that participating in traditional American festivities constitutes a celebration of the English settler invasion of North America. European immigration directly resulted in the murder and rape of thousands upon thousands of Native people, pillaging their homes and resources, and eventually forcing them to live on, what are now known, as “reservations.” While you might be grateful for the food on your table, you may be forgetting how it got there. Twenty-first century American traditions of celebrating Thanksgiving and getting ready for Black Friday sales are ultimately due to a long chain of events caused by European settlers and white American corruption.
For nearly fifty years, the United American Indians of New England have mobilized a rally and day of mourning on November twenty-second. They explain the significance of this day by stating:
“Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.” (Native Hope)
Those of us who are not native to North America are generally unaware of the flip side of this Thanksgiving coin. Children in schools are taught that the pilgrims and the Native people met harmoniously and offered each other new resources and mutual support. Many even celebrate the idealized generosity of Native people by making paper headdresses and reenacting the romanticized relations. It is probably not appropriate to tell elementary-aged children about the numerous massacres which white immigrants waged against tribes such as the Pequot, or the disease epidemics which nearly wiped out whole native populations. However, teaching a false history is devastating to how the majority of American children understand Thanksgiving. These children grow up to be adults. Adults who buy supermarket turkeys, decorate their homes with pumpkins, and go Black Friday shopping. While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations, everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday. For many tribal nations within the United States, this is a day of solemn remembrance.
This is Native American Heritage Month. November 23rd is Native American Heritage Day. And Thanksgiving, which falls on November 28th this year, is an opportunity to change the way that non-Native Americans honor the history of English settlers’ immigration and invasion of North America. Native Hope is an organization built upon preserving the pan-tribal histories, stories, and traditions, while spreading awareness of the misconceptions many Americans are taught. This organization suggests ways Native and non-Native people can celebrate (or anti-celebrate) Thanksgiving:
“We remember the generosity of the Wampanoag tribe to the helpless settlers.
We remember the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lost their lives at the hands of colonialists and the genocide of whole tribes.
We remember the vibrant and powerful Native descendants, families, and communities that persist to this day throughout the culture and the country.
We remember people like Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland who just became the first Native American women elected to Congress.” (Native Hope).
I urge all Americans to take further steps to educate ourselves and seek out new ways in which we can honor a collective American history. Those who have the means to participate in American Thanksgiving traditions will hopefully consider ways in which they can anti-celebrate in awareness and spirit, without giving up the family time and food. If you are lacking inspiration or want more information, a few sources to get started are listed below.
- Native Hope. “What Does Thanksgiving Mean to Native Americans?”
- United Native Americans of New England. “Native American Girls Describe the REAL History Behind Thanksgiving.” YouTube. November 23, 2016.
Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.