I love that Thanksgiving is a food and gratitude centered holiday. But ever since reading about the actual people’s history of the holiday, I’m more sick to my stomach than excited about eating.
Sure, we’ve got a lot to be thankful for. We have our religious tolerance, our tradition of welcoming foreigners… ahhem… don’t we? The story of pilgrim-colonists setting foot into the New World does little to assuage my angst about our nation’s future, because it ignores a lot of the actual intolerance, conflict, and oppression that is deep within our history.
The short version of the real story of Thanksgiving is this: President Abraham Lincoln established the day as a national holiday in 1863. In his words, it was established as a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” but all paternalistic religiosity aside, let’s face it, something else was happening in 1863. A holiday based on a beneficent nationalist myth as our origin story helped smooth over deep divisions after the Civil War. Well beyond Squanto, the history actually involves conversion, smallpox, and having crops and land indelibly altered within the Colombian Exchange. Our social worlds and our ecological landscapes were indelibly marked by imperialism. Small wonder, then, that the fourth Thursday in November is marked by native peoples with a day of mourning and ceremony at Plymouth Rock.
Let’s face it: white supremacy is actually deeply embedded in Thanksgiving. Funny I should mention those words, “white supremacy”, right? Didn’t we just this week read about people known to hold racist beliefs becoming nominated to the highest offices of our government? Our history has a lot to do with why – and how – it came to this. We haven’t yet come to terms with our nation’s racist and genocidal past, and even our textbooks barely teach this stuff.
I want to make this Thanksgiving more deeply anti-racist, ecologically rooted, and anti-imperialist. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t want to be paralyzed, either. Repeating the holiday with no acknowledgement of the intolerance in its history feels delusional at best, if not actively perpetuating oppression.
Without further ado, here are some suggestions for how to stay woke this Thanksgiving:
- Consider a national day of atonement to mark the holiday. That might involve some fasting, instead of feasting. Is that a no-go? I get it. Read on.
- Stand with Standing Rock. Educate yourselves, your guests, your students and local politicians about the Dakota Access Pipeline and . There’s currently a standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation because the Sioux nation is trying to defend their water and land against an oil pipeline that wants to run through their sovereign land. If you can head to Sacred Stone Camp, or Oceti Sakowin Camp or Red Warrior Camp in solidarity, go! If you can donate to the protestors, do! Winter is coming and the #NoDAPL protesters can use your help, for both winterizing and legal defense.
- Engage in your local indigenous rights issues, and find ways to plug in to address them. Educate yourself by reading Vine Deloria’s 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins, or Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, or Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
- Take a moment of silence and remembrance for ancestors and the people whose land you are occupying, before your meal. If you’re into setting intentions and ceremony, make one out of candle-lighting with anti-racist intentions and gratitude to Native Peoples at its core.
- Utilize the book suggestions and fantastic educational resources for all ages here (courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Visit a local Native American museum or cultural center during some part of the holiday.
- Play the song Custer Died for your Sins and other songs of indigenous resistance as music during your celebration. Even if your family isn’t down with sage burning and intense political discussion, you can always be subversive with a little musical mood-setting. For starters, check out Rebel Beat Radio and Indigenous Resistance.
- Write President Obama to ask for clemency for Leonard Peltier. Or volunteer for his Legal Defense Committee.
- Care for the Earth. Respect and stewardship for land, water, and all living things is a deeply held part of Native American ethics. Their land management techniques allowed the land we now live on to be fertile and bountiful. Environmental ethics are life-supporting ethics. Even the Pope acknowledges our problematic “throwaway culture” and calls for greater action on climate change in his Encyclical. It’s time to take this seriously.
b. Avoid the stocking stuffers that are likely made in sweatshops and with lots of plastic.
c. Shop at local small businesses that provide good jobs and living wages for their employees.
d. Use the Buycott app to support products and causes you believe in – and to steer clear of those that aren’t in line with your values
e. Push for political action on climate change. Check out 350.org’s campaigns, for starters.
9. Take any number of small, daily acts as part of an effort to be an Anti-Racist American:
a. Have a tough conversation about racial bias with a white friend or family member
b. Read an article by someone who is Muslim about how to be an ally to Muslims – or do the same for African Americans – or First Nations – or refugees – or any other historically or currently marginalized group you think it might be helpful to learn more about.
c. Encourage your local higher education institutions to offer sanctuary to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) individuals, and urge President-Elect Trump for continuation and expansion of the DACA program, as many college presidents did this week.
e. Be politically engaged. Sign a bunch of petitions and make calls about the issues to local legislators you care most about.
10. Go big, on just one or two issues, all year long:
a. Become an English conversation partner to an immigrant or aspiring citizen
b. Mentor a child
c. Sponsor a refugee family
d. Be a pen pal to someone who is incarcerated. Free Minds Book Club, in DC, is one good place to start.
e. Garden for life. Do native landscaping in your own backyard and community, because it can make a huge difference for pollinators, biodiversity, and can reshaping our landscape closer to its ecologically-intended purposes. For more resources, see here.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. The work to do is deep, it is personal, and it is political. Thanksgiving is mostly just a symbolic start. But if we don’t reclaim our symbols, but perhaps that’s the easiest way to begin entering into the deep, uncomfortable, and important work that there is to do. Don’t wait. No one will do this work for you, and this is our collective problem. To borrow from Rabbi Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”