In this op-ed, Christine Nobiss, MA (Religious Studies), Plains Cree/Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation and Decolonizer with Seeding Sovereignty, explains why she organized Truthsgiving in resistance to Thanksgiving. Her work with Seeding Sovereignty is focused on dismantling colonial-imperialist institutions, and replacing them with Indigenous practices created in synchronicity with this land. To learn more about and to support her work, please visit www.seedingsovereignty.org.
There are many settler colonial mythologies about Native Americans. These widely held but false beliefs are rooted in deeply entrenched discriminatory attitudes and behaviors that are perpetuated by institutionalized racism. One of the most celebrated mythologies is the holiday of Thanksgiving, which is believed, since 1621, to be a mutually sanctioned gathering of “Indians” and Pilgrims. The truth is far from the mythos of popular imagination. The real story is one where settler vigilantes unyieldingly pushed themselves into Native American homelands, and forced an uneasy gathering upon the locals.
In the words of Wamsutta Frank James, Wampanoag, “the Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans.” These words came from his 1970 Thanksgiving Day speech, which he wrote for the annual celebration of the landing of the Pilgrims held every year in Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, this speech was never presented; the organizers of the celebration reportedly asked to see his speech ahead of time, according to James' obituary in the Boston Globe, and allegedly asked him to rewrite it on the basis that his words were not aligned with the popular mythology. He instead declared Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning.
Thanksgiving is the third in a line of problematic holidays of the fall season — holidays that may seem harmless, but that actually have a grave effect on the well-being of Native Americans. The other two are Columbus Day and Halloween. From the second Monday of October to the fourth Thursday in November, Native Americans are hammered with a barrage of racially offensive, culturally appropriative, and historically inaccurate inculcations. The list is extensive — Columbus Day parades, statues, speeches, and sales; offensive Halloween costumes; Pilgrim and Indian paraphernalia; and of course, all the parties, events, and classroom activities that even our children are subject to. All of which is an attempt to hide the unpleasant truths about this country’s real history.
Indigenous organizers are making headway on decolonizing Columbus Day by replacing it with Indigenous Peoples' Day, and are also exposing the truth about derogatory Halloween costumes that perpetuate dangerous colonial violence. However, Thanksgiving is so deeply cherished by American society that protests and alternative celebrations have made little impact.
It’s past time to honor the Indigenous resistance, tell our story as it really happened, and undo romanticized notions of the holiday that have long suppressed our perspective. As an Indigenous decolonizer, I call this time of year the Season of Resistance. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I ask you to please take the time to educate your peers about Thanksgiving's real history; to support Native people as they resist the narrative of the holiday; and to organize or host alternatives to this holiday.
An essential part of decolonizing Thanksgiving is to start educating our children with the authentic history of this country. A book that reexamines basic “truths” about Thanksgiving in an educational context is Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Considering that much of the Thanksgiving mythology is based on sharing food, it is ideal to discuss the importance of Indigenous first foods or food sovereignty with our children as well. The book Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition discusses the traditional process of growing and harvesting corn, de-commercializing what we eat, and promoting culturally appropriate foods and agricultural systems of North America. Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools is a quick read where more resources are listed; it even has sample letters that can be sent to your children’s school concerning problematic Thanksgiving activities.
Other important Thanksgiving decolonization tactics include participating in Indigenous-led events. In 1970, the National Day of Mourning was instituted by James, the United American Indians of New England, and the local Wampanoag community as a resistance to Thanksgiving. This alternative holiday is held at Plymouth Rock and has occurred annually for almost 50 years. The National Day of Mourning also coincides with an event on the other side of the country that takes place on Alcatraz Island (an important Native American site). Unthanksgiving Day, also known as The Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, is a large cultural event that has been held annually since 1975 and commemorates the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement occupation of 1969. There are, in fact, many anti-Thanksgiving events that occur around the country each year — one of which I have co-organized, called Truthsgiving.
In order to honor the achievements and contributions of Native Americans to the United States, in 2009, a resolution was signed to recognize the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. It seems like a step in the right direction, but it’s more of a redirection around the real issue, which is that Thanksgiving needs a complete overhaul, in the same way Columbus Day is slowly being revisioned as Indigenous Peoples' Day. To celebrate the current Thanksgiving mythology is to celebrate the act of land expansion through ethnic cleansing and slavery — most of which happened at the point of a gun. It is masked recognition that this country was founded on the actions of generations of Europeans who depended on the joint violence of genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African people to conquer this land, the legacy of which is still felt today.
Generations of American values are responsible for institutionalizing the Thanksgiving mythology, but ultimately, change can occur as individuals awaken to the reality that their Thanksgiving meals celebrate a violent, whitewashed history, and begin the process of truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation.