Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Q&A

Installment 3

Amy Imsdahl, Voices Staff

For November, EchoX is running “Decolonizing Thanksgiving”, a short series that offers guides and resources for understanding and celebrating Thanksgiving in a way that is not one-dimensional. You can check out the first installment, “Land Acknowledgment” and the second installment “Healing, Truthmaking, & Revitalizing” in EchoX Voices.

For our third installment, we asked EchoX staff, board members, friends, and community members to take part in a short Q&A. (*All responses are anonymous and some were shortened for length and clarity.)

Below is a shortlist of resources we’ve gathered from Indian Country Today, an independent nonprofit multimedia news enterprise, and First Name Basis, a Podcast that provides tools and practical strategies to talk to children about race, religion, and culture.  We hope these resources provide you with a better understanding of the first Thanksgiving.

What do you know about the first Thanksgiving?

“In 1621 the colonists of Plymouth gave thanks for the plentiful harvest of that year. They invited some of the local native Americans to share in the celebration since they had given the colonists food during their first winter in the area.”

“Never mind the myth of the well-told story at Plymouth Rock.  Historically it was not even the first thanksgiving.   There were others before.  A few years before 1621, we had settlers in Virginia (1619) and some 50+ years earlier, the Spaniards were in Florida.  And long before that and continues to the present day, Native Americans always give thanks to the source of their earthly nourishment.   So “who” is on first? (Pardon my pun here)”

“Much of what Euro- Americans generally know about ‘Thanksgiving’ is borne out of a mythological’ take on what was most likely a tenuous, unsettled relationship between indigenous peoples on the northeast coast of the continent and European settlers … The concept of a ‘harvest’ event was probably already recognized and carried out in some fashion by both settlers and indigenous people in their own separate contexts, previously.  This time, it, by necessity, required creating something new and different from what anyone had experienced before. Given what followed across the continent during the westward movement of Europeans and other incoming settlers, it would be hard for indigenous peoples to take seriously the concept of ‘coming together’ peacefully for a harvest meal in subsequent years (one would think).   Clearly, the myth of thanksgiving has evolved into being a terribly cynical – if not a simply illusory – take on the realities of American history.”

“I guess I know the same story that everyone who attends elementary school in the U.S. or grew up watching Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving hears. But I also know that what we consider the first Thanksgiving was more of a harvest festival and a celebration of surviving the winter. The first feast/celebration named ‘Thanksgiving’ didn’t take place for another couple of years, and it was a feast to celebrate the massacre of an entire Pequot village.”

“Thanksgiving as a national holiday was a myth created to bring together European Americans together after the Civil War.”

Has the meaning of Thanksgiving changed for you over time?

“I knew the way Thanksgiving was portrayed in school wasn’t how it all went down. It was a lie. It wasn’t until college that I heard it told from an Indigenous perspective, more importantly a Wampanoag one given that they were the ones at that “first Thanksgiving”. I think as I got older and I learned more (and understood more) about the history of this country and how it has treated Indigenous people, the holiday has become a little bittersweet for me. People may not realize it, but what every person in this country shares, and the very history of this nation, has been in front of us the whole time. Most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice, and the like. We should embrace this.  No matter where you are in North America, you are on Indigenous land. And so, on this holiday, and any day really, I urge people to explore a deeper connection to what are called “American” foods by understanding true Native-American histories, and begin using what grows naturally around us, and to support Native-American growers. There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the beauty of the present.”

“I went into high school around the time the Seattle school district started pushing awareness of colonial atrocities, plague blankets, cutting off hands, we’re not calling it Columbus Day anymore, etc. But I still appreciate the day for getting together with family, and mostly it just marks the beginning of the holiday season (the best season).”

“I still think of it the same way as I did when I was younger – the turkey dinner and time spent with family. However, now I am more mindful that to many Native Americans it symbolizes the end of their traditional life.”

“Yes, when I was younger it seemed like a fun celebratory time and it seemed more peaceful. It wasn’t until I got older and it was shown and portrayed in movies, shows and in my college class that I learned Columbus was not the person who discovered America and how he killed and took advantage of innocent people. For me Thanksgiving is still a time to gather family together but it makes me sad that many indigenous people were blindsided and killed because this man wanted to take the land.”

“In some ways, yes. I did not grow up in this country so I tend to have an outsider’s perspective – it evolved from being a foreign student getting together and making a tradition on campus, to receiving hospitalities of host families, to giving hospitalities when I had my own place to share. In other ways, No. because personally, it is about homecoming.”

If you were to describe Thanksgiving in a 6-word story, what would that be?

“Be thankful there is Black Friday? (Or Cyber Monday?)”

“Not what you learned in class”

“Family, community, sharing food, stories, laughter “

“Family gatherings around Turkey Day”

“Football, beer, pie, turkey, family, #America”

“Family eating a turkey dinner together”

“Acknowledging Indigenous land; celebrating togetherness, diversity”

“Time for truth while saying thanks”

“Enjoy food but don’t be ignorant”

What are some of your Thanksgiving traditions?

“At home growing up, I would help clean the house, we would make tamales and turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, and Jello. Throughout the years we would have a huge family gathering and we took a lot of photos and videos. We would then play lotteria which is “Mexican Bingo””

“Since I’m not a big fan of turkey, I make a leg of lamb for the family to enjoy.”

“Outside of COVID times, feasting with my dad’s side of the family; everyone else does a pre-meal prayer as we stare awkwardly at the table; my aunt makes turkey-shaped cookies.”

“Having a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, especially the pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Spending time with family. Relaxing afterwards by playing a board game or watching a good movie. Buying a Christmas tree, the day after Thanksgiving.”

“Lots of drink. Lots of food. Lots of conversation. Family getting together with close friends.”

Are there any new traditions you would like to add?

“I’d like to see an annual reading be done with a theme that focusses on different cultures coming together to share a meal.… and verbally or through artistic expression to share a bit about what’s different and common to the different cultural groups that happen to be in attendance at a given gathering.  This could focus on the specific nature of those attending.   I do like the idea of sharing our common humanity while recognizing the richness of cultural uniqueness and differences.  The realities of historical relationships between those present, positive and negative, could be openly recognized in a way that might suggest hope and aspirational improvements to be made in the future.”

“I think a new tradition to add is maybe say a prayer and acknowledge the loss that occurred and bring the reality of the situation instead of the way it was brought up to me when I was younger. Also still bring up the idea of being thankful for family and what we have. Another new tradition would be to go out and enjoy nature.”

“This year my aim is to center my traditional Lakota foods. As a grad student, I’ve been working to remember ancestral knowledge around Lakota foodways through research and talking to relatives. Even if I can’t cook, I’ll remind my relatives of the “old ways”. Sharing knowledge is pivotal for our community, especially our youth, to be culturally grounded. I hope others do the same.”

“As individuals and a group reflect on our country’s myths and why were those myths created (not just Thanksgiving).  Then find peace with the truth making surrounded by family and friends.  Perhaps it can be renamed National Day of Myth Busting.”

“I’d probably like to be in a warm, sunny place for Thanksgiving.”

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