Tomorrow brings a very angsty American holiday: Thanksgiving.
What can Thanksgiving mean for Indigenous people, except to serve as a reminder of all that has been taken? Land. Children. Language. Story. What turns this taking into giving, which is to say, what can thanks possibly have to do with what has only ever been stolen?
Perhaps the shift from “taking” to “giving” has happened with such insistence in the American psyche so as to have accrued that warm feeling of common sense. Is it not common sense to say that Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday?
Once a year, publications across the country give space for Natives to air their grievances during the unholy trifecta of annoying holidays for Indians — Columbus Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Every article recounts the atrocities which America committed towards the Indigenous people of the land and connects it to some current work the American government is engaged in to assimilate and vanish Natives from our history and rights as sovereign nations in the country. This year, we can say that America has always tried to extinguish Indians through force and that the current attempt to disrupt the Indian Child Welfare Act through the Supreme Court is just another step in the long process of assimilation. Yet through it all, we can still proclaim, “I will survive.”
I’m not against these types of articles, per se, but I do grow bored with them as they say the same things repeatedly. The predictable nature of these articles has also driven away any realistic attempt at challenging people’s understanding of the holiday. For many Americans, the history of Thanksgiving bears little relation to the modern-day celebration. No one really cares to hear about the atrocities that happened to Natives from America. Similarly, no one really cares about the fairy tale of positive Indian and White relations in the 1600s. Native writers instead compete with one another to see who can make the most white progressives feel guilty for the sins of their fathers.
The article quoted above goes turn on further to explain that the foundation of the holiday was formed in 1637 by John Winthrop, who called for a thanksgiving feast after a massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children. I don’t doubt that the Pequot massacre happened. Still, I doubt this moment is the beginning of the holiday, which the article notes was federally established as a holiday in 1863 and proclaimed by President Lincoln, who had his own nefarious interactions with Indigenous people.
William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, established a time of thanksgiving among his colonists in 1623, three years after their landing on the shores of America and more than a decade before the Pequot massacre. It is in Bradford’s account where we also get the fabled Indian feast:
“King Massasoit, with some ninety men, we entertained and feasted with for three days. They went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”
So while it is convenient for us to attribute such a vilified holiday as Thanksgiving to an Indigenous massacre, it appears to be a false correlation meant to drive emotional anger.
At its core, Thanksgiving is a religious holiday with little to do with Natives. William Bradford was calling his colony together to give thanks to the Lord for providing crops for them and protecting them from the “ravages of the savages.” Little care was truly given for Natives, even if the Plymouth Colony engaged in a political truce of sorts at the table with the Wampanoag. We should all wish that was a true event, even if things didn’t quite work out for the Wampanoag and the rest of us Indians afterward. Over the years, the religious nature of the holiday was replaced with a tale of international relations among the “first Americans” on both sides of the coin. And, as the years progressed even further, the Indian story of Thanksgiving has given way to complaining about having to attend a large meal with family we despise. Or, in more hopeful terms, a welcome reunion of family and a break from work for most of us.
Our current version of Thanksgiving has little resemblance to its original religious purpose or its secondary tale, thankfully enough. And as such, it is a holiday worthy of celebrating. My family has celebrated this modern version of Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember, both on and off the Fort Berthold reservation. We don’t spend the day grousing about the atrocities that have happened to American Indians, which are real, or partake in performative actions to prove our hatred for the holiday and America itself. Rather, we spend time as a family and eat til beyond full and celebrate—or avoid—one another, you know, like typical Americans.
Thanksgiving can represent something more than what it has in the past. The ideals of the holiday can still be celebrated even if you’re Indian. No, Thanksgiving and America aren’t perfect. Many American Indian activists struggle to make the Native voice heard and a valuable part of the American discourse. Similarly, as the Declaration of Independence made a huge claim of equality that wasn’t provided at the time and is still being fought for today, we can celebrate the changes that have occurred in the years-long battles that fought to make America live up to its stated ideals. The same can be said for Thanksgiving.