Thanksgiving was always my least favorite holiday.
I wish I could say it was because I couldn’t stomach the one-dimensional story told about the foundation of our nation, but in truth, the reasons for my hating Thanksgiving as a child however, could not be more selfish. It boiled down to two things for me. One: the fact that the day that in my mind the day centered around waiting for food. We weren’t allowed to eat when we were hungry because a big meal was coming later, and to be honest, I get less excited about food than most people I’ve realized. And two: it meant a lot of awkward social interactions with strangers. My family always invited over neighbors and community members who didn’t have family in the area and being an introvert this meant playing in my room alone wasn’t an option. Like I said, pretty selfish.
Many years have passed since then, but my selfishness did not evaporate around the holiday and what I recognized it as. As a white, non-native girl, growing up the stories I learned around Thanksgiving were centered on forged community, cross-cultural relationships, “Indians and Pilgrims”. Through time the narrative was expanded a bit for me, but I never sought specific details. Even when I learned some of the horrors of Indian Boarding Schools, the Trail of Tears, and countless broken treaties, I didn’t revisit Thanksgiving and the implications of a single narrative of celebration for that day.
We all have things to be thankful for and that’s what the day is really about, I thought. So why complicate it? It’s not hurting anyone. To me, this seemed like a reasonable, logical, stance for years. But instead of “why complicate it?” consider a different perspective.
Why take an encounter and history that is complicated, painful, and dehumanizing and present it as a celebration?
To some, next Thursday is known as a the National Day of Mourning.
A few years after the first harvest feast of 1621, the alleged “first thanksgiving”, “the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians.” (Source: Oyate)
I am not arguing for the complete disavowing of a day of giving thanks. Indigenous communities like Europeans have long histories of giving thanks and days to celebrate this. However, when I get real about my question of “why complicate it?” I see my selfishness for my own comfort, for my own narrative. I believed as long as I recognized inequity and stood for justice in general, I could dismiss the pain of a day I see as nothing more than giving thanks. But by ignoring the truth of the Indigenous perspective in Thanksgiving, I was communicating to my Native students, friends, and extended family members that acknowledging their pain and their loss, that their truth in this situation was an inconvenience. This was a choice I was making by ignoring the truth of Thanksgiving. I wouldn’t have consciously admitted it, but by only acknowledging my above the line narrative I was choosing to perpetuate the belief that the voices, perspectives, and truth of indigenous people was not valid.
In my life I have found humankind to be complicated, amazing, individuals. We have the capacity to hold multiple things at once. We can hold thankfulness and truth. We can hold celebration of time with family and reconciliation. For me, as a white woman I know that I have traditions, institutions, and a culture surrounding and supporting me in one of these areas. So my work becomes, what will I continue to do to learn into the other? How will I continue to hold the below the line narrative?
Want to learn more or want lesson plan ideas? Some good places to start: