“The killings became more and more frenzied with days of Thanksgiving feasts being held after each successful massacre. George Washington finally suggested that only one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and every massacre.” (Susan Bates)
We often think of Thanksgiving as a time of family, football, giving thanks and gorging. I used to be of this mindset until learning more about some of the actual roots of this holiday. What I learned was that Thanksgiving has little to do with an amicable meal shared between the Pilgrims and Indians. While there is a documented meal shared at one point, and this is often what is referenced, the “National Holiday” was originally a marker of the celebrations of the massive genocide of Indigenous peoples across the Eastern coast of the US. Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin gives an amazing run down of many of these “origin story” myths we were taught about our country and some of the actual truths that they mask.
In our White Noise dialogue this month, we discussed these dangerous and false mythologies surrounding Thanksgiving. With Halloween, and all its racism, sexism and cultural appropriation still lingering in the air, and Christmas, with its rampant consumerism right around the corner, we shared how overwhelming this time of year can be for those of us trying to resist the dominant and oppressive norms of the culture in the US. When the truth is that the labeling of Native peoples as “hostile” and “savage” was used as an excuse to rationalize the massacre of people in order to clear land and settle it, and when these same narratives are now being used to justify widespread atrocities against communities of color across the globe, while ignoring ongoing oppressions against Native communities, then we have to start thinking about the risks of remaining complicit in these colonial narratives. In what ways might we be perpetuating injustice when we continue to celebrate and give thanks on this day?
We tried to dig in deep to why these mythologies are so ingrained into our culture and why our friends and family often become defensive when we start to question why we celebrate this holiday. It seems that taking a critical look at Thanksgiving is often interpreted as an attack on the family and “tradition.” Which makes some sense when you think about the ways our social fabric is woven around the celebration of these holidays – many people are only able to get enough time off to see family around the times of the most colonized and consumer-based holidays. But the sugar-coating and institutionalization of these myths doesn’t erase the real histories of these holidays. And it doesn’t erase the fact that we remain complicit in perpetuating these dangerous mythologies if we don’t learn the truth and strive to shift our individual and collective choices in how and what we celebrate.
Do we really want to continue to celebrate a holiday that commemorates the largest genocide in human history? In what ways is it similar or different than if Germany celebrated the Holocaust with an annual, national feast? What are we really teaching our kids when we encourage them to dress up as Pilgrims and Indians? Thinking critically about Thanksgiving is not an attack on the family. I believe our families (biological and chosen) are stronger when we learn together and when we work together to create a world we want to live in.
We each left the dialogue with one of these commitments:
1) To continue to learn more about our own ancestors and histories of colonization
2) To continue to learn more about the histories of the Indigenous peoples on the lands where we are living and where we are from – in ways that do not exotify, romanticize or vilify them – simply seeking the truth (for those of us in the SF Bay Area, start with Ohlone, Muwekma Ohlone, Miwok, and Ione Miwok)
3) Whether or not we participate in gatherings, to continue to initiate difficult conversations with family and friends about the real origins of this holiday – and to do so with respect and curiosity
4) To interrupt when Native Americans are referred to in the past tense
5) To learn more about active/current Indigenous struggles and ways we can support them (start by learning about Idle No More, American Indian Movement, the Shellmound Protest in Emeryville, the Glen Cove Protest in Vallejo, Free Leonard Peltier, the Alcatraz Occupation or the Top 10 Tribal Desires of 2013)
6) To go see the 6th Annual Thangs Taken: rethinking thanksgiving in order to explore the complex history of Thanksgiving and support critical dialogue and cultural development of Native communities or support the annual Alcatraz Island Sunrise Ceremony
If you’d like to join us, here are a few resources to support learning and conversation. Know of other great resources? Share them below in our comments section.
Don’t Celebrate Genocide aka Thanksgiving – various clips of protests
“What the White Man celebrates as a day of Thanksgiving, we have absolutely nothing as a culture to celebrate. That’s why we consider it a Day of Mourning.” “There’s gonna be a parade that marches down by the rock. These people are gonna be dressed as Pilgrims. In one hand they’re going to have the Holy Bible and in the other hand they’re going to muskets. Now what does that tell you?”
Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. 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 that Native Americans continue to experience.
The Truth About Thanksgiving by Susan Bates
The true story of thanksgiving and not the Disney fairy tale told to you when you were growing up… “The killings became more and more frenzied with days of Thanksgiving feasts being held after each successful massacre. George Washington finally suggested that only one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and every massacre.”
Critical Perspectives about Thanksgiving:
The Birth of A Nation: Giving Thanks for Colonization and Genocide from Aztlán Reads
No Thanks to Thanksgiving from The Final Call
Thanksgiving: Celebrating the Genocide of Native Americans from News Junkie
Columbus What? Oh You Mean, Happy Imperialist Resistance Day! by The Angriest Black Man in America
“It is shameful that European culture was so narcissistic and self absorbed that they didn’t imagine a world outside their own and when they ‘discovered’ it, they couldn’t handle or respect that fact that someone had already ‘discovered’ it.”
Applying the Conversations to Parenting and Education:
Why I’m Not Thankful for Thanksgiving by Michael Dorris
Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings by Vera Stenhouse
Rethinking Columbus Curriculum by Rethinking Schools
“Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is a foundation of children’s beliefs about society. Columbus is often a child’s first lesson about encounters between different cultures and races. The murky legend of a brave adventurer tells children whose version of history to accept, and whose to ignore. It says nothing about the brutality of the European invasion of North America.”
The First Thanksgiving History Assessment by Stanford History Education Group
The People vs. Columbus, et al. by the Zinn Education Project
Beyond the So-Called First Thanksgiving: 5 Children’s Books That Set the Record Straight on the Indian Country Today Media Network
A Little Satire
Illegal Immigrants by 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors
**Thanks to Zara, Nicole, Kelley and El Carbo for edits and contributions!