Ahh, Thanksgiving. Homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and the traditional turkey (or Tofurky for vegetarians like me). It’s generally the epitome of fall for Americans, especially white Americans. It’s a time for family to come together, share a huge meal and to reflect on what has made you grateful in the last year. Or — if you’re like me and many other “radical” college students — it’s a time to have some awkward debates over politics with your relatives. And if this sounds like you, guess what? I have a few questions for you to quarrel over with relatives while the turkey roasts: Do they know how problematic Thanksgiving is? And if so, how can it be more ethically celebrated? Before you start your debate, though, it’s a good idea to get yourself completely educated on the topic by making sure you understand how Native Americans have been treated, how they are treated today and what actually happened during the first Thanksgiving.
To younger generations right now, the colonization and gentrification Indigenous people face worldwide is slowly beginning to be more common knowledge. This is not because American history courses in high school have finally begun to teach young people about it, but more because we have begun to educate ourselves and learn from others across fault lines through social media apps such as TikTok, Instagram or Twitter. Regardless, the history and present day treatment of Native Americans is seriously lacking in public education and Thanksgiving is a really good reminder of this. Many elementary school children first learn about Thanksgiving by hearing about the Mayflower, tracing or painting their hands to create turkeys and making Native American headdresses. Some schools even go the extra mile by having their students dress as “pilgrims and Indians” for school pageants, and this opens the door to not only misinformation but also to cultural appropriation. This paints the warm, fuzzy picture our older relatives grew up hearing, of a peaceful reconciliation between “pilgrim” colonizers and Indigenous people. And while it would be hard and arguably a little too early to teach elementary schoolers about the atrocities colonizers committed toward Native Americans, current Thanksgiving day celebrations only build a very inaccurate picture of Native American history.
While the timeline of the “first Thanksgiving” may hold some truth, the background is almost never mentioned. Pilgrims first came to North America by way of the Mayflower from Plymouth, England in 1620, and they built a colony after landing in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. While the history is a little murky, it is mostly agreed upon that in 1621, the pilgrims had a 3-day festival to celebrate a successful harvest, with members of the Wampanoag tribe in attendance. The context which is not taught is that the land the pilgrims reaped this bountiful harvest from was the very same land they had plundered and stolen from indigenous tribes, and the tribes were dying from a plague they got from the colonizers. Additionally, after the “first Thanksgiving,” Thanksgiving was not celebrated again until over 200 years later when President Lincoln loosely declared it as a holiday (it did not become a national holiday until 1941). Native people continued to be brutalized and still today are underrepresented and subjugated to this day. Because of all this, it is important to educate ourselves, our family members and children in our lives on the inequalities Native Americans face.
This is definitely easier said than done, but opening your mind and learning for yourself is a good place to start. Celebrating Thanksgiving may look different for everyone, and some, after learning about the history behind it, may not even celebrate it. For others though, Thanksgiving holds a lot of warm memories and is one of the few times some families are able to gather and express gratitude. If your family is one of these families and you still want to participate, it is important to learn how to do so ethically. Completely cut out any cultural appropriation or incorrect perceptions of the history surrounding it, and focus more on learning about the accurate history surrounding Thanksgiving. Uplift Native American communities by learning about them, educating yourself on their struggles and posting about this on social media or signing petitions to support the movement toward their recognition and equality. Don’t be afraid to challenge your family members ideology because this is where real change starts. And, by all means, throw out your grandma’s Precious Moments figurines of Native Americans and pilgrims. Their days are over.