Thanksgiving Reconsidered: 5 Practices for a Decolonized Thanksgiving

TW: genocide, massacre, violence towards Indigenous peoples

Thanksgiving is a week away, and because of a global pandemic, the majority of Americans in this country (hopefully) will not be celebrating the holiday in their usual way- with holiday travel, big family gatherings, and endless feasts around a table together.

In a year of upheaval on every level of our society, it seems appropriate that Thanksgiving will not feel “normal” to many this year. Moreover, with November being Native American Heritage Month, and increased national attention on the legacy of white supremacy in this moment, it seems necessary to reconsider how we tell the true history of Thanksgiving, and honor Indigenous communities during this holiday.

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“The First Thanksgiving”- by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris-Not anything like the actual First Thanksgiving!

Though the mainstream conceptions around this holiday include a rosy picture of “pilgrims and Indians” coming together in 1621 for a great, harmonious, friendly feast, many scholars, historians, and activists have written extensively about the various myths surrounding this narrative.

For example, Wampanoag Tribe’s historic preservation officer, Ramona Peters, emphasizes the ways that the Wampanoag tribe’s interactions with the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony were a fact-finding mission, to learn more about settlers who had been shooting guns and cannons toward their peoples. Many have also pointed out that this occasion was not a major historical event or celebrated nationally until Abraham Lincoln used the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating together peacefully to create unity during the Civil War. Even more troubling is the ways that an original Thanksgiving celebration, proclaimed by the governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony, was actually in commemoration of the massacre of 700 Penobscot men, women, and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance.

As we consider the reality that Thanksgiving for American Indians has always been connected to genocide, stolen land, broken treaties, settler colonialism, and violent Christian ideologies such as the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny, I am being challenged this year, to consider new ways of celebrating Thanksgiving. Non-Native communities must acknowledge that our “normal” ways of celebrating Thanksgiving have often been undergirded by a distortion of history and the erasure of trauma.

All of the unprecedented, heavy, challenging, and disorienting events of 2020 have continually reminded me of Sonya Renee Taylor’s words:

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So this year, as I acknowledge the ways that Thanksgiving is not normal due to a global pandemic, I am also considering some new ways to celebrate Thanksgiving that honor the First Peoples of Turtle Island.

Here are a few practices to consider:

1) Acknowledge the land you are on
Consider ways, as you celebrate the holiday, to name the land you are on and acknowledge the Indigenous peoples of your community. Moreover, consider how to make land acknowledgement an ongoing practice in your life, building relationships with Indigenous leaders who are local to your community and advocating for your city or local municipality to include formal land acknowledgements in their public meetings.

2) Pay Reparations
Consider actions that foster reparations and give back part of your money back to Native American nations, organizations, movements, collectives in your area. Consider making it part of your monthly “tithe.” My family, for example, pays our annual Ohlone land tax, and are also considering local businesses to support, such as Café Ohlone or local organizations such as the Native American Health Center.

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Some of the beautiful foods of Cafe Ohlone

This Thanksgiving in particular, you may also consider making a donation to support mutual aid funds for Indigenous communities hit hard by covid-19, such as this Decolonizing wealth fund, or this Indigenous Environmental Network mutual aid fund.

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Donate to Covid-19 Mutual Aid Funds for Native Communities

3) Learn (or unlearn) History from Indigenous voices
As you consider the myths of Thanksgiving, take a moment to hear from the voices of Indigenous leaders about what Thanksgiving means for them, such as this interview with Cedric Cromwell (Mashpee Wampanoag), this post by Mark Charles (Navajo) or this interview with Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee). Consider attending the National Day of Mourning/Unthanksgiving Day.

Being Native American in the US- by Mark Charles

Also, continue learning and unlearning history through the many resources out there available, whether watching documentaries, reading books by Native authors, and reading children’s books by Native writers to gain a more accurate history and representation as well.

4) Honor Creator and enjoy the goodness of creation
Randy Woodley shares that celebrations of giving thanks pre-dates American Thanksgiving, and that feasting and celebration happened for thousands of years prior to European arrival and happened all throughout the year.

On this holiday, give thanks not only for the resilience and gifts of Indigenous peoples through the generations, but also for beauty and resilience of creation. Worship Creator. Get outside. Go for a hike. Sit under a tree. Look at the stars. Put your hands in dirt. Plant something. Dip your toes in water. Watch the birds. Try making some Thanksgiving dishes that honor native foods. Enjoy creation as a reminder of the ways that it has sustained us for generations, and foster practices that build harmony with the community of creation.

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From a recent visit to Lake Chabot

5) Extend hospitality and expressions of mutuality
Learn from the longstanding culture of thanksgiving, hospitality, and mutuality in Indigenous communities by reaching out to those who might feel especially isolated this year. In this time of pandemic, consider writing a handwritten note or card to somebody who is elderly, or feeling alone. Deliver some food or baked goods onto a doorstep. Buy flowers for somebody who might need the cheering up. Find ways to serve unsheltered neighbors. Extend care to newly arrived migrants, refugees, and unaccompanied immigrant youth in your community. Spread gratitude and hospitality.

May we all take this opportunity, in an unprecedented year, to learn how to reconsider our celebration of Thanksgiving, and choose paths of life that bring about greater justice, peace, and flourishing for all.

What ways are you planning to re-examine your observance of the Thanksgiving holiday this year? How might the shifting of “normal” be leading us into greater truthfulness and repentance around the true history of Thanksgiving, while still inviting gratitude and honor to the Indigenous peoples of this land?

A Closing Wampanoag Prayer — from Princess Red Wing (Narragansett/Wampanoag)

May you be able to gain the peace that surpasses all understanding
The gift from the Great Spirit, as my ancestors did.

And may you be able to call the Great Spirit to bless your cornfields of present day achievements, as my ancestors did

And may you be able, in this age of creative noises and modern machinery, to find still the time to be still, as my ancestors did.

Red wing has spoken.

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Co-Pastor @bethelcommunitysl | Director of Advocacy @fphayward | pastor, activist, writer | married to @eubanksme | co-author of @lentenlament | she/her

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