6 Thanksgiving Traditions It's Time To Stop Practicing — Like, Now

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images News/Getty Images

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to come together with family, enjoy the crisp autumn air, and eat tons of tasty food. While having a day off work or school is always nice, it’s important to remember why Thanksgiving Day exists in the first place. Most Americans are taught that it’s a day of gratitude that originated with a celebratory dinner between Native Americans and the pilgrims, but that narrative couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Thanksgiving Day story as we learn it, and many of the subsequent traditions of the holiday, were actually created out of a violent, racist history that was rewritten by non-Natives.

By 2017, a growing number of Americans understand that the Thanksgiving Day story represents the violence of colonialism for many Native people, and those who partake in the holiday are increasingly doing so in a sensitive way, emphasizing family and gratitude over the revisionist myth of the pilgrim-Wampanoag dinner. But there are a number of Thanksgiving traditions that perpetuate racist myths, or are borne out of offensive origins, that you can work to eradicate this Thursday. It's OK to enjoy Thanksgiving — but it's important to be mindful of the history it comes out of. Here are six Thanksgiving traditions you probably didn't realize are offensive, racist, or just plain problematic, and how to avoid them this holiday season.


Retelling The Story Of Thanksgiving

If you went to an American public school, you probably learned the revisionist history of Thanksgiving, and were told the holiday was a big, friendly dinner shared by Native Americans and pilgrims alike. Well, that’s not true at all. Thanksgiving Day wasn't even considered a holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national day of prayer during the Civil War. Moreover, the first “Thanksgiving,” in 1637, was either a feast celebrating a massacre of over 700 members of the Pequot tribe, or a commemoration of a peace treaty between the English and the Wampanoag (which was quickly broken), depending on who you ask.

Regardless of what literally happened on the first Thanksgiving, it came to serve as fodder for a myth that erases the history and culture of indigenous people, and diminishes the violence committed against them. By retelling that story around your family table, it perpetuates the violence of erasure. It isn't "just a story," and perpetuating that myth is offensive. Acknowledge the history that's allowed this myth to spread, even with young kids, and instead reflect on what you're grateful for this year.


Mischaracterizing Squanto

The legend of Squanto is one of the more problematic parts of the Thanksgiving story. Squanto — whose real name was Tisquantum — is an essential figure in the Thanksgiving story, and is said to have acted as a mediator between the Natives and settlers, but much of his life is erased on the holiday. The Patuxet Native American was captured as a young boy from the area we know now as Maine, and sold into slavery in Europe, where he became fluent in English. To ignore the human rights violations committed against Tisquantum, and simply refer to him as a guide for the pilgrims, does a disservice to not only Thanksgiving, but Native American history as a whole. “[The Native Americans near Plymouth Rock] were not merely 'friendly Indians,'" writes Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux. “They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary — but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect.” Rather than perpetuating stereotypes, take a moment at the table to talk about Tisquantum's life — and yes, even if you're sharing your Thanksgiving with youngsters.


Crafting Headdresses

Many non-Native Americans have, at some point in their lives, crafted a headdress out of construction paper to "celebrate" Thanksgiving day. It's usually a kid's craft, but plenty of people incorporate it into their Thanksgiving day traditions. I know some people may think it’s harmless, but Native people have explained time and time again that headdresses are sacred, and wearing one is extremely disrespectful. Cultural appropriation is a heated topic, but why participate in a racist tradition that causes hurt when it’s easy enough to avoid? If crafting is part of your Thanksgiving tradition, hand turkeys are the way to go.


Watching Football

Though it may feel like watching football has always been a staple of Thanksgiving, the tradition started over two centuries after the OG Thanksgiving day, in 1876. Why is it offensive to take part in this tradition, you may ask? Well, for one, it feels at odds with the spirit of reflection and gratitude; some Native Americans even regard the holiday as a National Day of Mourning. “I do have that Thanksgiving meal on that day with family, but it gives me an opportunity to speak to the kids and the family about the truth of the day, and why that day is important to give thanks,” Cedric Cromwell, the chairman and president of the tribal council of the Mashpee Wampanoag, told HuffPost in 2015. “Some would say, ‘Why be so dark about it?’ Well, it’s real, it’s truthful, it was a holocaust, and that holocaust must be shared and communicated so that we ensure that mankind doesn’t do that to each other again.”

Additionally, this year, one of the three Thanksgiving Day games will be played by the Washington, D.C., team, which uses an offensive name for Native Americans as its name and mascot. “The [D.C.] team, our fans and community have always believed our name represents honor, respect and pride,” owner Dan Snyder said in a statement, responding to a Washington Post poll of 504 Native Americans that found that most did not find the name offensive. That aside, Native Americans have been petitioning the team to change the name for years, but the fact that they are playing on Thanksgiving Day, in light of the holiday's history, is particularly unfeeling.

Turning Thanksgiving into practice for a Super Bowl party erases the significance of the holiday. And, considering that many football teams have recently been taking part in protests against police brutality and systemic racism, watching football as entertainment on a day meant for reflection feels even more disconcerting.


The Turkey Pardon

President Obama's dad jokes during the annual Turkey Pardon were always pretty funny, but the White House tradition would be much better if the President pardoned a person, instead of, well, a bird. It may seem to be a lighthearted, silly ritual, but when Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the U.S. criminal justice system, it makes you question the practice a little. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average, and are often subject to federal sentencing, which tends to be more punitive than state sentencing, because of the laws governing reservations. So, it would be nice to see a president pardon a person who received an unjust jail sentence in the spirit of Thanksgiving.


Black Friday

Black Friday is so problematic that it deserves its own article, so I'll try to sum it up. Other than being a chaotic nightmare that has played a role in the deaths of at least 10 people (and over 100 people injured in crowds) since the 1980s, the tradition has been boycotted in recent years by union-led activist groups because of how it exploits workers. The widespread practice of Black Friday means that retail workers must spend their Thanksgiving day prepping the store to open early the next morning, rather than spending time with family. And no, Cyber Monday's not any better — thousands of extra workers need to be contracted to fulfill the demand of people buying stuff online the Monday after Thanksgiving. Instead of partaking in either of these practices, make a commitment to shop small businesses this holiday season — you'll lessen your environmental impact by shopping local, and make a bigger difference in an entrepreneur's life by not supporting a corporation.

I'm not suggesting you can't enjoy or participate in traditions like eating turkey or making crafts, but it never hurts to be mindful of the origins of these traditions. The reason Thanksgiving was made a holiday (in 1863, not at Plymouth Rock) was to give thanks for the blessings we have — including the privilege to live on this land that did not belong to the people who colonized it. If being mindful of that history and meaning means shifting some of your family traditions, that's a small — but important — step to take.