Not just about gratitude: Addressing the truth behind Thanksgiving

Infographic listing ways to discuss the history of Thanksgiving
Flora Huynh/Staff

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For many American families, Thanksgiving is a time to come together, celebrate and be thankful. In elementary school, we traced our hands to make turkey drawings and learned about the Pilgrims who came to the United States. As cheerful as that story is, it’s far from the truth. Realistically, Thanksgiving gatherings were less about coming together and more about celebrating the success of the Pilgrims. More than that, the Pilgrim story leaves out the undeniable murders, thefts and abuses of Native Americans who lived all over North America before any European immigrants arrived.

For anyone who is active in social justice or is striving to learn the truth behind the white-washed history of what many were taught in school, Thanksgiving can be a little tricky. It’s always important to give thanks and have time with family and friends, but do we really want to continue celebrating a holiday that is historically and currently oppressive to Native Americans? If you’re feeling conflicted about celebrating Thanksgiving, that makes a lot of sense. But it also can be hard to cut off a holiday that has value in your family. If you’re not quite ready to cancel your Thanksgiving dinner but you don’t want to ignore your feelings, check out this list of ideas for addressing the reality and darkness behind Thanksgiving and the historical treatment of Native Americans.

Find and circulate educational materials

Non-Native Americans, we’ve spent enough time letting Thanksgiving be easy and ignoring the parts that are hard. Let’s take the burden off Indigenous people to educate us and our families, and put the burden on ourselves instead. For UC Berkeley students, who have a lot of support as activists and are surrounded by many social justice-oriented peers, it’s very doable to find amazing resources written and supported by Indigenous people. It can be things such as videos, essays and poems that convey the history of Thanksgiving and the truth behind the genocide and oppression of Native Americans. It can also be resources that showcase Native Americans today and all the amazing things they’ve done, which have historically been overlooked. Once you find some appropriate sources, reach out to your family or whomever you are spending Thanksgiving with and ask them to look through the materials you’ve provided. If you’re not sure they’d be super willing to read on their own, consider showing a video before Thanksgiving dinner or reading them a brief piece by an Indigenous writer.

Have a conversation with your family

If you want to make it more personal than just education, have a conversation about Thanksgiving with your family. Talk about why its history is harmful and how you all feel about celebrating. You can make resolutions to support Indigenous creators and brainstorm ways to combat misinformation about the holiday and about Native Americans. Above all else, connect yourselves to this issue and address the idea that though Thanksgiving may be fun for your family, it’s a horrible reminder for many Native American families.

Consider researching land recognition

This doesn’t mean looking up a land recognition for your area and reciting it before you dig into your food. It means taking some time to research what Native American tribes lived and still live in the region you’re in today and recognizing that you are benefiting from what was stolen from them. If you decide to do this, research different land recognition practices and see what elements are important to include — this article is a great resource for this. Reminding your family of this through a meaningful land recognition before dinner can be a good step in the right direction, but consider also adding a reminder to support Indigenous people, educate yourself and be conscious of privilege. If this would end up as a performative step, consider whether it is better not to do it at all.

Consider not celebrating

There are many ways to be thankful and get together with family that don’t continue a false narrative about oppression in the United States. If it feels right to you, consider not celebrating Thanksgiving this year, or consider shifting the tone of your dinner from joy and celebration to mourning and respect. Think about how we view Veterans Day and other memorial holidays and apply that narrative to Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving for many families is a carefree and fun time, but if you’ve been working on understanding your privilege and promoting social justice, take some time to consider how you want to approach Thanksgiving this year. There aren’t right or wrong answers here, but if you’re consciously trying to bring truth to Thanksgiving and support BIPOC, consider implementing some elements of education and mindfulness in your holiday.

Contact Elysa Dombro at [email protected].