Are you facing a Thanksgiving gathering that has the potential for conflict about the meaning of the day and the history of the celebration? We’ve got some ideas on how to deconstruct some of the myths and start the conversation about how it all really happened.
Let’s start with an honest retelling of the Thanksgiving story.
American schoolchildren have long been taught that the first Thanksgiving was the result of an unconditional welcome of English immigrants by the Indigenous people of the eastern United States.
What we hear less frequently, or not at all, is the story of a century of genocide perpetuated by Europeans upon Indigenous people throughout the 1500’s, well before the Mayflower ever landed in Virginia.
Exposure to European diseases throughout the 16th century resulted in pandemics up and down the eastern coast of the United States. Exacerbated by the Indian slave trade started by Christopher Columbus, Indigenous tribes found themselves at a severe disadvantage, both socially and politically, with no choice but to negotiate with the Europeans for power.
Read more about the backstory of Thanksgiving here: https://billmoyers.com/story/real-thanksgiving-story/
Know whose land you’re on.
Colonialism is place-based.. As white settlers, we are taught the importance of private property and the names of towns, counties, and states. Indigenous people have their own names for these places. Your school, the grocery store, your home, and places of worship all sit upon occupied Indigenous land.
This interactive map will tell you who the Indigenous people of your area are. If there are no Indigenous people shown in your area, do a little research and find out what happened.
The Segorea Té Land Trust is an urban Indigenous women-led land trust based here in the San Francisco Bay Area that facilitates the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. Check out their work to get a better understanding of this effort, and support rematriation of the land by paying your Shuumi Land Tax.
Consider where your heat, water, and electricity come from.
Extraction of natural resources in the form of coal mining and burning, fracking, uranium mining, nuclear waste dumping, and copper mining have left Indigenous reservations with toxic pollution on the land and in waterways.
Very little of the economic bounty (profit!) that results makes its way into the local economies.
North Dakota’s Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem stated that much of the increased violence against Indigenous women in recent years has taken place in the counties where these extraction activities are taking place as a result of the influx of itinerant workers.
Take a look at your own family’s history.
Many Europeans are forced to give up their culture and language when they immigrate to America in exchange for whiteness and its privileges. This subject can be a starting point for talking with family about this part of our history, but remember to discuss it in the context of accountability and reparations to Indigenous people. Without that accountability, we simply erase and perpetuate ongoing genocide.
Next, consider how your family has benefitted from whiteness and from the exploitation of Indigenous people. How did your people come to be ‘white?’ What was lost in that process? How can this learning help challenge cultural appropriation, and deepen our accountability to Indigenous peoples and struggles? If your family owns a home and/or land, how did they come to acquire it? Here’s an interesting list of questions to further this discussion.
Challenge cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is a continuation of genocide and land theft - settlers steal what does not belong to them, as if it is rightfully theirs. Sports mascots, Thanksgiving pageants, homework assignments that ask students to ‘create something Native,’ and some Halloween costumes make fun of and diminish the dignity of Indigenous people. Find more thoughts on this subject on The White Noise Collective’s list of resources.
Understand how Christianity justifies land theft.
The Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery, established by the pope in 1095 AD, was used by European colonists to validate domination and ownership over non-Christian peoples and their lands. This document declared any land in which Christians do not live as “empty” and open to conquest. A 1452 document gave Christian explorers “full and free power,... to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ,... and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and... appropriate realms…” The U.S. system of land ownership and private property is rooted in these documents and the U.S. Supreme Court has cited them to deny land rights to the Oneida Nation as recently as 2005.
Read more about this subject in this study by the United Nations.
Engage in local struggles and build relationships
As they continue the struggles for land, water, and self-determination, not all Indigenous advocates are seeking outside assistance, but some are. Reach out, ask for consent, and seek guidance. The goal is not to have Indigenous people join our struggles for social justice, the environment, or civil rights, but to support their efforts for self-determination.
Thanksgiving can be stressful, for so many reasons, so remember to breathe and take time for yourself. When you do engage with family members on these subjects try to meet each individual where they are - not everyone has all of the information that you do. Often just asking questions about what someone believes to be the truth lets them hear themselves and opens their minds. Sometimes it’s an impossible no-win situation and while we need to talk about the history and ongoing reality of settler colonialism, your holiday family dinner might not be the right time and place.
If you see an opening, go for it - sometimes people who love you will listen just because they love you. But it’s ok if you don’t manage to correct the story for everyone this year. Educating oneself and joining with like-minded people and groups is where a lot of the real work gets done.
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