How Do We Respectfully Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Lula Konner, ‘22

November 2018

When I was younger, I would get ridiculously excited about Thanksgiving. I would wake up early every year, run downstairs, and flip through the channels until I found the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. My head was filled with visions of buttery mashed potatoes, slices of sweet potato pie, and bottomless bowls of carrot soup. I cherished the promise of making pretty place-cards for the table, or of playing with my adorable baby cousins. There was just something incredibly festive and non-offensive about the holiday. It was about gratitude and family and nothing else; it was not governed by religion or excessive gift-giving. And throughout my childhood, I had absorbed the idea that the origins of Thanksgiving were purely joyous and whimsical. I learned, through picture books in kindergarten and textbooks in middle school, that Thanksgiving was about a beautiful meal between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. For years, teachers had rattled on about the English Pilgrims coming over to Plymouth on the Mayflower, and hosting a three-day feast with their Native American counterparts -- the first Thanksgiving.  

And then the day came, as it comes for all of us, when I lost my innocence, and discovered that the story I’d been told for so many years was a lie. After a few chapters of Howard Zinn and a discussion or two with my uncle Mel, I began to understand that this classic story was not only inaccurate, but also neglected some deeply gruesome details. Yes, the English settlers held a feast to honor the Wampanoag tribe, and to celebrate the peace treaty they had established. But this wasn’t actually the first Thanksgiving. Just a few years later, the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, and, along with other English settlers, began seizing land, capturing many Natives as slaves, and killing the others. This began one of the worst Indian wars in history -- the Pequot War. Then, in 1637, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a “Day of Thanksgiving,” celebrating the murder of 700 Native Americans  (members of the Pequot Tribe.)

Finding out that the original Thanksgiving wasn’t a wondrous tale of harmony and cranberry sauce was far worse, in some ways, than finding out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Thanksgiving was a lie my teachers had told me. And unlike the Santa Claus myth, it wasn’t a harmless fairytale; it was a horrible deception that had been driven into me since I was little. It seemed as if almost every adult around me was doing the best they could to hide the dark truth from me -- it gave me a big knot in my stomach.

This Thanksgiving myth, which so many of us have been taught, erases the shame of colonial sins and replaces it with a feel-good fantasy. It allows me, and other white Americans, to block out or ignore the shocking, guilt-inducing truths about our ancestors. But lots of people can’t just do that. For many Native Americans today, Thanksgiving is far from a celebration; it is a “National Day of Mourning,” on which they grieve for their murdered ancestors.

It is no secret that, throughout history, Native Americans have been oppressed, persecuted, murdered, and robbed of their culture. And the persecution and alienation of indigenous people persists today. The Dakota Access oil pipeline, for instance, became the topic of intense protest in 2016, as it was designed to travel underneath the Missouri River. The river is the main drinking source for the Standing Rock Sioux, a tribe consisting of 10,000 people and a reservation in Dakota. So the pipeline threatens the tribe’s water supply -- even a small spill is detrimental. Unsurprisingly, despite the great uproar against the pipeline, construction finished last April, and the pipeline went into effect last May. Native Americans are still being ignored, and the views and rights of white people are still being prioritized.

And yet, despite all of this, we still regard this day, which originally celebrated the murder of hundreds of Native people, as a national holiday.

So how does one reconcile the violent, problematic history of Thanksgiving with all the nice bits of it we enjoy now? Because the truth is, I still like all of those things I used to like about Thanksgiving. I like seeing my family, and eating until I’m full, and I like having a holiday that isn’t about giving and receiving presents, but about appreciating what one already has.

It is ridiculous to assume that the entire country will stop celebrating Thanksgiving altogether. But I also don’t want to be participating in an offensive tradition, in which my white privilege allows me to be ignorant. So perhaps the focus of Thanksgiving should be shifted.

The fictional story of Thanksgiving that is taught in most American schools is harmful. If we choose to celebrate this holiday, we should teach young people the truth about it, not some magical fairytale that ignores the suffering of an entire population. Young people aren’t stupid, and they don’t need everything sugar coated for them. Schools shouldn’t be using textbooks that spread falsehoods about Thanksgiving in their curriculum. Teachers should instead contextualize the holiday with its origins, even if they are grim. Starting in kindergarten, when little kids are asked to trace their hands and turn them into turkeys, there should be some small reminder to respect the meaning of Thanksgiving, to understand that it is not at all a perfect holiday.

And even as we grow older, it is important to be mindful of what Thanksgiving means. Though it is unlikely that we’ll ever abolish the Macy’s Day Parade or Black Friday, perhaps it is best to refrain from commercializing a holiday that is, in many ways, very somber.

It is not difficult to adapt traditions to reflect our political positions on things. Many now think of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day, a time to celebrate the culture and history of Native Americans. Others choose to reflect on the conflict between Israel and Palestine on Passover. Traditions evolve and can be adapted to fit the times. Thanksgiving is one of these traditions.

If we choose to use Thanksgiving to be grateful for what we have and to reflect on some of America’s painful history, it can still be a lovely holiday. We don’t have to be oblivious -- we just choose to be.