In the United States, Thanksgiving is a time of year where people eat exorbitant amounts of food, spend time with family members, and often watch football or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. While it’s easy to write off as an innocent, non-religious holiday focused on wholesome values such as family togetherness and gratitude, the holiday’s dark past is seldom acknowledged.
Schoolchildren hear the story of the Pilgrims coming to America and trying their hardest but nearly starving the first winter. Then, weakened and dwindling in numbers, they are found by Squanto, a kind Indian man who speaks English and teaches them how to farm and build well-insulated houses. The subsequent centuries of genocide against native people are typically saved for another lesson.
Given the way Native Americans have been treated, whether that’s mass murder or reeducation or a denial of the rights to vote and practice their own religions until the twentieth century, it makes sense that people might disagree with celebrating a holiday about how the Wampanoag people showed compassion only to have it thrown back in their faces later. There are conflicting opinions about it, and there’s no perfect answer as to what is ethical. As a white woman of European decent, my voice should not be the loudest in this conversation. I’ve become educated about the controversy surrounding Thanksgiving by reading the research and opinions of intellectuals of Native American heritage, and I would encourage others to do the same.
Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and Yankton Dakota Sioux, writes in an essay published by the Pure Water Gazette that she was raised to view Thanksgiving with a sense of pride. While the common rhetoric paints Squanto and the other Wampanoag people as “friendly Indians” who helped the pilgrims with a naive optimism, Keeler points out that Europeans had already been to the continent, kidnapping slaves to bring back to their land. Squanto was even captured himself at one point, which is how he spoke English. They understood the risks, but still helped people in need because it was the right thing to do. According to Keeler, it is common in numerous native groups to place a high value on giving, because it ensures the community as a whole would benefit. For this and other reasons, people who give to those with nothing often earn respect as a result. Keeler feels that the Thanksgiving story, when told from the perspectives of Native Americans, showcases important cultural elements, promotes giving freely, and has potential to bring healing.
Many do not feel quite so warm and fuzzy about Thanksgiving. For one thing, the ideal model of remembrance with respect and accurate information is not widely practiced; very few schools or parents are teaching children more than a one-dimensional history told from the Pilgrim’s perspective, and few adults take the time to reflect on the darker aspects of the holiday. More importantly, many people feel like the massive genocide of Native Americans was too harmful an event to look past. Before you try to defend Thanksgiving as a separate day unconnected to these crimes against humanity, the very Pilgrims who were saved from starvation contributed directly to death and disease. “By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way ‘for a better growth,’ meaning his people” (Keeler).
Because of the pain and suffering native people suffered at the hands of the Pilgrims and their descendants, in 1970 Thanksgiving was reestablished as The National Day of Mourning. This day started when Wampanoag man Frank James was censored when invited to give a speech at a Thanksgiving celebration (a speech which was brutally honest about the plight of Native Americans), so he and others decided to protest the holiday instead.
There are also some people who have a directly contrary view of Thanksgiving to that held by Keeler, who feels that it can be a celebration of important cultural elements when observed correctly. Bobbi Webster of the Oneida Nation, for example, expressed in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that Thanksgiving has the potential to be contrary to her traditions because the Oneida people hold 13 ongoing ceremonies of thanksgiving throughout the year. While Webster has chosen to integrate Thanksgiving into the other opportunities to give thanks, not all feel the same way. Some would say that reserving the celebration of giving thanks for one day stifles the way their culture places so much value on continued gratitude.
There is no widespread consensus on the morality behind celebrating Thanksgiving. Instead of celebrating it purely for the reason that it’s tradition, think long and hard about whether you should and why. If you do continue to observe the holiday, be intentional about how you do so. If a child in your life learns a problematic viewpoint surrounding the first Thanksgiving in school, start a conversation with them about Native American history and culture. It doesn’t have to be incredibly in-depth, but it should be researched and accurate. The organization Understand Prejudice offers ideas on their website, some as simple as initiating a discussion by asking what the child knows about Native Americans and filling in the gaps with some basic information. While it is very important to educate about the injustices committed against indigenous people, this does not need to be the focus of the conversation. An understanding of culture and what’s going on with modern native people is more helpful in terms of fostering a sense of viewing them as valid people. (Bonus: Sharice Davids of Kansas and Debra Haaland of New Mexico made history as Native American women in politics this month.)
If the only reason for continuing to celebrate is wanting to keep the day of family bonding intact, remember that there are other options. You can start a new tradition where you get together in the fall and have a family dinner. That might sound cheesy, but simple answers often wind up working quite well. If you still decide to celebrate, remember the full history and be respectful.
Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? Let me know why or why not in the comments.