Thanksgiving is almost upon us, a time when many Americans gather together to eat turkey and talk about what they’re most thankful for. Growing up in the United States, almost everyone can recall the “First Thanksgiving” story they were told in elementary school: how the local Wampanoag Native Americans sat down with the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621, in what is now present-day Massachusetts, for a celebratory feast.
However, this story is far from the truth - which is why many people opt out of celebrating the controversial holiday.
For many Indigenous communities throughout the US, Thanksgiving remains a national day of mourning - a reminder of the devastating genocide and displacement that occurred at the hands of European colonisers following their arrival in the Americas.
Every year since 1970, Indigenous people and their allies have even gathered near Plymouth Rock to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the day of Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the erasure of Native cultures,” states the official website for the United American Indians of New England. “Participants in National Day of Mourning honour Indigenous ancestors and Native resilience. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that Indigenous people continue to experience worldwide.”
This year, the 54th annual National Day of Mourning takes place on 23 November - the same day as Thanksgiving. While not everyone can support the event in person, there are still many ways people can raise awareness toward issues affecting Indigenous communities from wherever they are - by “decolonising” their Thanksgiving dinner.
Decolonisation can be defined as the active resistance against settler colonialism and a shifting of power towards Indigenous sovereignty. Of course, it’s difficult to define decolonisation without putting it into practice, writes Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang in their essay, Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor. Rather, one of the most radical and necessary moves toward decolonisation requires imagining and enacting a future for Indigenous peoples - a future based on terms of their own making.
Matt Hooley is an assistant professor in the department of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Dartmouth College, where he teaches about US colonial powers and Indigenous cultural production. “Decolonisation is a beautiful and difficult political horizon that should guide our actions everyday, including during holidays like Thanksgiving,” he tells The Independent. “Of course, Thanksgiving is a particularly relevant holiday to think about decolonisation because the way many people celebrate it involves connecting ‘the family’ to a colonial myth in which colonialism is inaccurately imagined as a peaceful event in the past.”
By decolonising our Thanksgiving, we can celebrate the holiday with new traditions that honour a future in which Indigenous people are celebrated. This year, we can start by understanding the real history behind Thanksgiving as told by actual Indigenous communities.
While Americans mainly dedicate one day a year to give thanks, Indigenous communities express gratitude every day with the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address - often called: “The words that come before all else.” The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is the central prayer and invocation for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which comprises the Six Nations - Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. When one recites the Thanksgiving Address, they’re giving thanks for all life and the natural world around them.
According to Hooley, one of the most straightforward actions people can take to decolonise their Thanksgiving includes supporting Indigenous land acknowledgments and land back movements. Land back is an ongoing Indigenous-led movement which seeks to return ancestral lands to Indigenous people and the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. While the movement is nowhere near new, it received international attention in 2016 during protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline - which continues to disrupt land and water sources belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
This year, sit down with family and friends to discuss an action plan and highlight the concrete steps you plan on taking to support Indigenous communities. “Another, even simpler way would be to begin participating in what’s called a ‘Voluntary Land Tax,’ whereby non-Indigenous people contribute a recurring tax to the tribal communities whose land you occupy,” said Hooley.
Food is perhaps the most important part of the Thanksgiving holiday, with turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes taking center stage. However, there are many ways we can make sure our dinner tables honour Indigenous futurisms too. Donald A Grinde, Jr is a professor emeritus in the department of Africana and American Studies at the University at Buffalo. Grinde - who is a member of the Yamassee Nation - tells The Independent that crops such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and potatoes are central to Indigenous history and future.
“A good thing is to be thankful for the abundance in the fall and note that Native people created over 60 per cent of modern agricultural crops,” he said. “People can be thankful for the crops that Native people created, medicines created, and traditions about democracy, women’s rights and environmental rights.”
Rather than buying food from major corporations this year, Hooly also recommended people consciously source their Thanksgiving dinner from Indigenous producers. “Industrial agriculture is one of the most devastating contributors to the destruction of land and water everywhere, including on Indigenous land,” he said. “Instead of buying food grown or made by colonial corporations, people could buy their food from Indigenous producers, or even simply make a greater effort to buy locally grown food or not to buy meat harvested from industrial farms.”
Thanksgiving is just a day away. While it’s important that we’re actively working toward highlighting Indigenous communities on this special holiday, decolonisation efforts are something that should be done year-round.
“People can also learn about political priorities of the Indigenous communities near them and support those priorities by speaking to their representatives, participating in a protest, or by making sure that their local school and library boards are including Indigenous texts in local community education,” Hooley said.