Updated: Nov 23, 2021
I have a love/hate relationship with Thanksgiving.
As a Native American, I love the fact that I get to see my family and enjoy a delicious meal together. I hate the historical context with the holiday. It is hard to feel “thankful” on a day that eventually led to a relatively dark history.
My earliest memories of the holiday revolve around making construction paper Indian headbands with feathers and pilgrim hats, grocery store bag vests adorned with artwork to symbolize the attire worn to the feast, and the creation of Indian drums out of coffee cans. We were taught that the event was a joyous affair, and led to a comradery between the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. Mind you, I attended a school where half of the student population is Native American. I never learned the truth about Thanksgiving and what happened after until I read the book “Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James W. Loewen. In the book, Loewen went through historical events discussed in K-12 institutions and dismantled the myths that make up today’s American classrooms. I began doing my own research with tribal historians to learn of the history that wasn’t presented to me in my Elementary School years.
However, this article isn’t about the history of Thanksgiving, as I would rather leave that to Historians.
This article is about Indigenous people today. The question becomes, given the history surrounding the first Thanksgiving with Indigenous people, do Indigenous people celebrate thanksgiving and if so, how do they celebrate?
Even today, I still get this question. I get this question as much as I get the question ‘did I grow up in a Tipi?’ For the record, I grew up in a house with heat, indoor plumbing, and cable television. But, if you want to go there, my tribe is a Woodland tribe so our people lived in Wigwams. But the point is, we still live in a world where the cartoon presentation of a race is still the dominant perception. Because of this, people refuse to learn the history of the holiday and a resilient people that it has affected. This has created stereotypes and cultural misappropriation in society.
So, as an Indigenous man, do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. I do take advantage of the day and gather with my family to share a meal, not clouded by the history of the holiday. In fact, we don't discuss it. To my knowledge, many Native people do the same.
Food and family are the centerpiece of many Native families. My family takes this day to bring together these two important pieces of our culture. We have a smorgasbord of food consisting of Turkey, Ham, Mashed Potatoes and Gravy, Cranberries, Stuffing, Corn, and Pie. We also have some traditional food options like Wild Rice, and Fry Bread. We eat. We talk about current events. We laugh. Some of my favorite moments during family Thanksgivings included a disturbance in our community two years ago where law enforcement was involved. This led to the kids in my family to gather lawn chairs, line them up along the front of the house, and watch the chaos unfold with full plates of food. As one of my cousins said, "this is better than TV."
There was one year that everyone was required to bring a dish to pass. My aunt forgot and the only thing she had in her pantry was boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I believe her and I were the only two that ate her dish.
Living miles away from my family, holidays like this give me the opportunity to reconnect with family I haven’t seen in months. In some ways, we are just like any American family. However, it is not lost on us the struggles our ancestors experienced for us to gather together.
After watching football, we watch the film It’s a Wonderful Life. This tradition was started by my great-grandmother when I was young and has been carried on for years.
But we also create our own individual traditions. Many family members of mine will travel to nearby cities to get a head start on Christmas shopping. I will take a nap as a result of my food intake and then watch the film Addams Family Values.
I know what you’re thinking. This is random. Isn’t this film a Halloween film? Well, it is random and it could be. Is Die Hard a Christmas film? Whatever. Don’t judge.
The 1993 sequel to the first live-action Addams Family film follows the notoriously macabre family as it encounters new situations, such as a new baby and a nanny happens to be a serial killer. The film’s most famous scene, which is what defines it as a Thanksgiving film, comes during a summer camp play, which Wednesday and Pugsley Addams are forced to participate in entitled “Gary Granger’s A Turkey Called Brotherhood,’ which focuses around the story of the first Thanksgiving, written and directed by Camp Director Gary Granger. Pugsley portrays the role of the Thanksgiving Day turkey. Wednesday, playing Pocahontas, disrupts the play to give a monotone, pointed speech about the other side of Thanksgiving joy. Wednesday, along with the Camp’s socially rejected kids who played the roles of Native Americans, take over the settlement, and eventually set the camp on fire.
Wednesday’s speech, in my view, is one of the most hard-hitting social commentary that we have seen about Thanksgiving within media, and makes it ahead of its time. What I love about the film is the breakdown of cultural norms, but also calls to attention the essential whitewashing of moments in American history, in addition to cultural appropriation within elements of American life. On a side note, I would point out that the real Pocahontas had nothing to do with Thanksgiving as Pocahontas was a Powhatan woman of Virginia, and had been dead for three years by the time the Pilgrims landed.
Being thankful is something that I carry every day, not just at the dinner table in November. I’m thankful for the countless opportunities I have been given in my life. I am thankful for a culture that is so rich and thriving. I am thankful for the ancestors who paved a way for me to experience the success I see today. I am thankful for friends and family who support and love me endlessly. I’m thankful for all the different ways we can eat potatoes. My thankfulness is never ending.
Many Native people, along with individuals and families across the country, have their specific ways of celebrating Thanksgiving. When I look at this holiday, you don't need to follow precedent of what is considered a "proper" Thanksgiving in order to participate in the holiday's best qualities, like gratitude and thankfulness for your loved ones. But you also shouldn’t forget where you came from and who’s shoulders you stand on. This Thanksgiving, take a moment to learn about the true history of Native Americans in our country, while also celebrating the concepts of gratitude and thankfulness for all that we have and all that we have been given. Indigenous people are still here and are thriving and resilient.
Be thankful. Eat a lot. Start new traditions. Seek truth.