November 21, 2023
Ami Raymond

Thanksgiving, a holiday often associated with family gatherings, feasts, and expressions of gratitude, has garnered a complex and contested narrative. While many view it as a time to express appreciation for blessings received, for many Indigenous communities, it represents a day of mourning, a somber reminder of the devastating impact of colonization and the ongoing struggles for recognition and sovereignty.

As I’ve started a family of my own, I’ve been thinking about how to establish traditions for us. This question is deeply personal as a mixed-race person who is part Chappaquiddick Wampanoag. I invite you to join me in grappling with the complex history behind this day.

To begin unpacking this question, we must separate fact from fiction and discern what information we consume and expose our families to. Then, we must recognize the wide range of traditions practiced by people around us and unpack our assumptions as we imagine what alternatives are appropriate.

I’m still working on finding the balance amidst these tensions and redefining the day in a way that honors Indigenous people and the sacrifices of our ancestors, while saving space for the familial traditions that do work for me.

While I’m focusing on the story in North America, let us not forget that this story is one told all around the world. Colonialism and the suppression and erasure of Indigenous lives and stories can be found on many continents.

In the United States, there is a misconception that in 1620 friendly Native Americans welcomed Pilgrims to America, taught them how to live on the land, and a year later, the Pilgrims offered them a feast after a successful harvest to say thank you. They lived in harmony as the Natives conceded to conquer.

Historical Truths

Native people lived on this land for thousands of years, and the story begins with them. Native people are a diverse group both socially and linguistically. They uphold various lifestyles, traditions, and beliefs. The response and interactions between them and colonizers must be viewed within that context.

The arrival of the Mayflower was not the first time Europeans landed or had contact with Native people. There was a century of devastation from disease and slave raiding prior to that. There were in fact alliances made between Wampanoags and the English, but it was out of a need for survival after disease and slavery had reduced Indigenous population by an estimated 90% by 1620, not friendliness or desire.

This alliance was betrayed and violated, culminating in King Philip’s War in 1675, which was a horrific event that led to the near decimation of the Wampanoag people and loss of their land.

There are a few shared meals cited as the history of Thanksgiving. However, many Natives believe the true roots are in 1637, when Governor John Winthrop hosted a celebration for English and Wampanoag men returning after slaughtering hundreds of the Pequot tribe in what is now Connecticut.

In 1863, one year after Abraham Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men to be hanged during the Dakota War, he made Thanksgiving a federal holiday. This was an attempt to create a false sense of solidarity predicated on the perspective of the oppressor.

The Present Day

Whitewashing history carries real consequences. It enables a colonial mindset that affects our perspective on the world, impacting our ability to recognize and oppose colonialism today. We can’t avoid repeating the tragedies of the past if we foundationally misunderstand them.

This means that November 23 is an opportunity for us to reflect on where white privilege comes from, acknowledge the roots of inequality now, and affirm the true history and experiences of Native communities today.

Here are some of the different ways people will be observing November 23:

  • Some Indigenous people and their allies will skip Thanksgiving all together.
  • Some will opt to recognize Native-led events, such as the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth1 and the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony in San Francisco.
  • Some people will refocus the day of gratitude for their families centered on a harvest-themed meal, while taking time to acknowledge the true history.
  • And some will personalize the day and rename it, referring to it as Takesgiving, The Thanksgiving Massacre, or Truthsgiving.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As we consider the complexities of this history, here are some questions for further dialogue:

  • How can we be critical of the stories we tell and pass on to the next generation?
    Question the narratives we’ve been taught about Thanksgiving and seek out information from Indigenous sources. Consider what stories the children in your life are exposed to at school, or what information is being withheld. Children understand and can handle far more than we give them credit for.
  • How might we acknowledge the land we occupy?
    Find out whose land you’re on, check out their websites, and support local tribes however you can.
  • How might we support Indigenous-led initiatives?
    Volunteer your time or donate to organizations working to protect Indigenous rights and preserve their cultures.
  • How might we educate others about the true history of Thanksgiving?
    Learn and spread knowledge, making use of the many online resources that support further exploration. Here and here and here are just a few.
  • How might we redefine this day for ourselves?
    I invite you to take a moment on your own to consider where your celebration comes from, what it means to you, and what this day means to others. Redefine this day for yourself, and consider including the rejection of the celebration of the genocide of Native populations within your new definition.

Critically thinking about the histories we grow up with and centering the voices of oppressed people ensures that we can have a full understanding of how these histories have shaped our societies. To recognize the genocide of Native populations, we must start by dismantling the myth around Thanksgiving. Although it can be uncomfortable to reconsider long-held traditions, it is worthwhile. I believe we will all experience a greater degree of connection with our communities when we are able to learn the real story, together.

As the manager of strategic initiatives for EDC’s chief operations officer, Ami Raymond works with the Leadership and Knowledge Management Teams and EDC’s three divisions to minimize redundancy, increase collaboration, and communicate proactively with parties across the organization.

1This National Day of Mourning was established in 1970 as a protest of the racism and oppression that began, and continues, with the arrival of the European settlers. It is also a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the erasure of Native cultures. Many people fast from sundown the day before through the afternoon of that day. Learn more here.

The author cited the following sources in the writing of this post.


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