Conflicts of morality and tradition: How can we approach Thanksgiving?

By Kennedy Thomason

Elm Staff Writer

The turkey, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the gravy — if you are like many Americans, your salivary glands are already preparing themselves for Thanksgiving.

We might also think about English settlers in their Puritan garb and Native Americans in colorful adornments, all sharing a table, having come together to toast to tolerance. The truth is, though, of all the historical inaccuracies that an American middle school textbook might boast, the history of Thanksgiving might just be the biggest lie of them all.

As children in elementary school, we were led to believe that the pilgrims and “Indians” celebrated the first Thanksgiving together in harmony, and that they were perfectly content and even appreciative of each others’ existence. In honor of this façade, we were often dressed in craft store feather headbands or paper mâché black pilgrim hats to parade around the school.

We now understand that this was not the true nature of the first Thanksgiving. In fact, Thanksgiving is the pinnacle of our white forefathers’ erasure of Native Americans both physically and intellectually. Time implores us to realize that Native Americans were not permitted to become American citizens until 1924, and even then, still were not allowed to vote in most states. Instead of minimizing the traumatic impact that colonization imposed on Indigenous peoples, we go as far as to celebrate a holiday based on a lie of tranquility.

According to the National Museum of the American Indian, it is true that “without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving.”

However, the feast was not one of gratitude toward the Native Americans’ hospitality. According to Time, “the first official mention of a ‘Thanksgiving’ celebration occurs in 1637, after the colonists brutally massacre an entire Pequot village, then subsequently celebrate their barbaric victory.”

Time goes on to explain the multiple rejuvenations and reinventions that Thanksgiving has undergone.

George Washington attempted to start a national observance of Thanksgiving during his presidency, not at all in relation to the colonizers but as a day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” He fell short.

Then, during the Civil War in 1863, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving official as a strategy to bring the nation together. Still, there was little to no mention of the origins of the holiday.

Finally, in the early 1900s, the “pilgrims and Indians” story took. This was during a time of unprecedented immigration, and white Americans were desperate to cling to their supremacy.

“Colonial ideology became the identity of what it was to be truly ‘American,’” according to Time. Americans began pushing this theory down the throats of immigrants as a way to assert their pride, telling stories “which fabricated a peaceful depiction between the colonizers and the tribes and neglected to mention the amount of death.”

This season can be immensely painful for Native American people still feeling the effects of their displacement, disenfranchisement, and the genocide carried out against them by European settlers. Thanksgiving, sometimes dubbed “Takes-Giving” by those who recognize the holiday’s hypocritical and racist nature, only highlights their struggle for basic human rights.

According to WBUR, “The United American Indians of New England declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning 50 years ago,” and, “many Indigenous people fast from sundown the night before to sundown the day-of to remember the hardship and genocide their ancestors faced.”

It is important for every non-Indigenous person to remember that our traditions do not trump the perspectives of Native Americans as the victims of violent oppression. Native American voices should be amplified when discussing this issue.

Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe raised on a Native American reservation in South Dakota, hopes that white Americans will acknowledge the history of his peoples’ oppression and make reparations as best they can, especially during Thanksgiving.

“We do not need the poisonous ‘pilgrims and Indians’ narrative,” Sherman said, clarifying that instead, “We can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude.”

Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, a Native American Congresswoman, also believes that we can hold space for the generational turmoil of the holiday while not being rid of it entirely. According to Rep. Haaland, we can, “make the holiday into anything we want it to be…we can choose to celebrate each other.”

While many Native Americans chose not to celebrate — a valid approach considering the circumstances — everyone can agree that Thanksgiving is not going to disappear overnight. So, how do we change the narrative without excusing the violence of the holiday’s origination?

First, as Sherman said, we need to debunk the racial stereotypes that Thanksgiving usually plays on. The National Museum of the American Indian calls for an end to “projects and crafts that attempt to adapt or copy Native traditions,” in schools and daycares.

Next, and most importantly, we need to be educating others on the history of Thanksgiving and how it plays into a centuries-long erasure of Native American populations. That is perfect: I already spend my Thanksgivings getting into humanitarian debates with my family members, so what’s one more issue?

Instead of celebrating the false unity of pilgrims and Native Americans, we can celebrate native culture and its influences on the food that we are preparing. As Sherman points out, “we can work with Native growers producing heirloom beans, squash and pumpkins, and Native corn varieties,” and “explore a deeper connection to what are called ‘American’ foods by understanding true Native-American histories.”

Lastly, Kisha James, a Native woman, said: “Don’t only think about Indigenous people on Thanksgiving.”

Meaning, we can’t afford to continue to ignore the injustices that Indigenous people face even today. In a speech written by James’ grandfather 50 years ago, which he was banned from giving at a white Thanksgiving celebration, he wrote, “This is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.” Unfortunately, James admits that her grandfather’s vision, “has still not come true.”

Whether it is the season of canned cranberry sauce or not, we need to be consistent in our support for Native American people.

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