When my Indigenous family members tried to explain that Thanksgiving was a day of showing gratitude for the lives we carry and somber remembrance of the lives taken, I was too young to understand at the time. Why did we make crowns with red feathers to wear in school if Thanksgiving was evil? Didn’t the Natives help the pilgrims? Isn’t it a day for celebration? We still serve dinner on Thanksgiving, joined together by candles and prayer, but we don’t celebrate what white Americans celebrate.
The famous feast between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people at Plymouth in 1621 lasted three days. According to historians, it was a good meal. From age five we are taught that they peacefully came together to enjoy a meal. But almost a decade after the feast, thousands of European settlers arrived and a plague killed more than half of the Native population. Thanksgiving is taught as a symbolism of harmony between the two people, but was it just kindness met with death? Many Native Americans looked at Thanksgiving as a day of somber remembrance. That includes my family.
I used to think it was beautiful. People who looked like me worked together with people who looked like everyone around me. My Native ancestors were in Central America but it felt united. Many of us are taught that the Native Americans shared food and knowledge about crops with the Pilgrims, but did you also know that there were twice as many Natives than Pilgrims? Did you know that the Native Americans provided most of the food consumed during the feast?
This picture shows what many people think: Pilgrims were kind enough to share with the less-sophisticated Natives. But that is a lie. Native Americans were intelligent and capable of surviving on their own.
Two of the most famous paintings depicting the first Thanksgiving — one by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and the other by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris — show Natives in a lower position, outnumbered and crouching on the ground on the edge of the frame. Barely captured and misrepresented, these paintings only illustrate the white-washed version of history. In 1630, Puritans wrote that they had arrived in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” Did you also know that the Native people who weren’t killed by disease were killed directly and intentionally? That is who you are celebrating.
The United American Indians of New England recognize Thanksgiving as the National Day of Mourning. Some Natives view the day as symbolism and remembrance that the ancestors survived mass murder, forced relocation, theft of land and other injustices. For some, it symbolizes the lack of peace today and how Native women are still being murdered, they are still being forced to relocate and their land is still being stolen.
I’m not telling you to abandon the holiday. I’m telling you to view it as it truly is: a white-washed holiday that celebrates a short-lived peace and glories colonialization while ignoring the fact that the injustices of the 1600s are the injustices of 2020. It is OK to be grateful for your family. But it isn’t okay to celebrate superficial peace that died along with half of the Native population. Being grateful and being ethically informed doesn’t have to be separate occurrences. My family still celebrates because we are thankful to be alive, but we eat our food while still remembering what was taken. So this holiday season, let’s focus on how to support Indigenous people today and always.
Here are some ways:
- Find out whose lands you are on. By learning about the land you take up space on, you can reflect on how to incorporate that acknowledgment into your life.
- Read. Read books by Indigenous people about their communities and how they preserve through struggles.
- Donate. Donate to communities especially now during the winter! People will need warm clothing, food and shelter!
- Conversations. Have conversations with friends and family. One sentence may change someone’s view on a certain topic.
- Boycott corporations that gentrify and oppress Native peoples.
- STOP using slurs. Stop using tiraflecha. Don’t call people Indians unless you are Indigenous. Stop saying eskimo.
- STOP appropriating our culture with your dreamcatchers and headdresses. If you want a dreamcatcher, buy it from an Indigenous person! Anything else is bad luck.