Thanksgiving: Understanding the Real History and Decolonizing the “American” Holiday

Thanksgiving is a beloved American holiday. People eat gluttonous amounts of food, gather with family, and celebrate the Pilgrims feasting before their first harsh winter on their newfound American soil. This is the idea perpetuated for generations by “Americans”, most of whom are the descendants of individuals who immigrated to the continent and decided to claim everything they set their eyes upon. The reality of this history is not a part of the master narrative of the American understanding of Thanksgiving. The entire history of the Native American peoples has not been included— or in some cases, completely fabricated— in many education systems across the country, and the current displacement and abuse of these peoples continues to be overlooked or ignored.

I have never been very comfortable with the holiday of Thanksgiving due to its history— one based in cruelty, erasure, and genocide. This year, I am visiting family for the holiday, and I felt that it would be important to take a moment and make an effort to acknowledge the peoples past and present who suffer from displacement, erasure, abuse, and other forms of cruelty through everything from stereotypes, to racist mascots (looking at you Redskins), and the absurdity of living as second class citizens on their own lands.

Here are some of my ideas for playing just a small part in decolonizing the holiday of Thanksgiving:

Acknowledge that if you live on “American” soil and are not of direct Native descent, that you are the descendant of an immigrant and a colonizer, and there was a high price to be paid for you to live here. If you are going to be thankful, let it be with the knowledge that the things you have to be thankful for are often mourned by those who actually paid the price.

Learn about the real history of the Pilgrims and their role in the colonization and destruction of the Native American peoples and their cultures.

Familiarize yourself with these populations before colonization. The history of America often begins with the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and completely ignores the millennia of various cultures that thrived across the continent before their introduction.

Visit a map or site that can give you a better idea of what land you are really living on and its history. A good resource is where you can see what tribes traditionally lived and cared for the lands you are currently living on (if you’re in America of course).

Realize and refuse to tolerate all forms of racism— including stereotypes, the usage of minorities as mascots or money-making figures, further gentrification of Native spaces, and any other form of degradation.

Promote visibility for Native peoples and their voices. Some ways to do this are by supporting Native owned brands and media, acknowledging and raising their voices when you hear them, and giving them the space and forum to speak for themselves— thereby being an ally and not steamrolling in the name of “social justice”.

Support Native peoples and their causes. I have decided to start an annual tradition of donating to a foundation that directly supports Native peoples every Thanksgiving.

I may not be able to change the country, or abolish the harmful ideas around this holiday, but I like to believe that every bit of love and support reaches someone in need in some way.

Here are some resources for learning more about the real history of Thanksgiving, some tools for learning to decolonize your understanding of Native American peoples, and some suggestions for places to donate:

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