Decolonizing Thanksgiving: Practicing gratitude while acknowledging Native history

Thanksgiving turkey dinner as traditionally associated with the all-American holiday. However, the traditional narrative surrounding the holiday can be problematic for current indigenous and native cultures. (Via Flickr)
Thanksgiving turkey dinner as traditionally associated with the all-American holiday. However, the traditional narrative surrounding the holiday can be problematic for current indigenous and native cultures. (Via Flickr)

With Thanksgiving two days away and the rest of the holiday season to follow suit, it’s important to acknowledge the diverse narratives around each holiday and how different stories have been oppressed or underrepresented because they don’t fit in with the mythologized, single “Pilgrim and Indian” narrative traditionally surrounding Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving, often considered the quintessential all-American holiday, is a favorite for many families across the United States. However, practicing gratitude doesn’t have to erase Native history or the current presence and survival of Indigenous peoples.

One way a group has organized around the issue of decolonizing Thanksgiving is by celebrating giving thanks while still acknowledging indigenous and international cultures.

Sierra Red Bow, Owen Oliver, and Craig Hill are all students at the University of Washington and members of the school’s First Nations registered student organization.

Red Bow, an environmental science and resource management major, with a minor in American Indian Studies, is co-chair of First Nations along with Hill.

Red Bow said one problem with the Thanksgiving narrative is that it erases the diversity among First Nation and Native American cultures and regards those cultures as solely in the past, further erasing their presence and resilience as people today. It forces a diverse people group into a single stereotype of “Indian.”

“When you say ‘native’ it really hits on a diverse group of peoples from all over [the] United States, Alaska, and even up into Canada First Nations,” said Red Bow. “So that’s just a really complex issue that most people don’t even understand to begin with.”

Owen Oliver, who is a member of the Quinault and Isleta Pueblo tribes, is the Coastal Salish chair for First Nations.

“We may call ourselves American Indians, Indians, Indigenous people, Natives and First Nations,” Oliver said. “And that’s just widening the gap for Canadian people to come and feel welcome in our club as indigenous people, regardless of borders.”

Another aspect of decolonizing Thanksgiving is recognizing one’s own relationship with land.

“And not only recognizing the power of nature but also recognizing that there is a reciprocity there,” said Red Bow. “That you’re not just taking from the land but also giving back.”

Red Bow, who is Lakota, was drawn to UW from her home Virginia because of the presence of such a large Native community, despite being the smallest minority on campus. She said education surrounding Indigenous people was lacking in her experience in Virginia.

“It was only until these past two years that I’ve really had an opportunity to learn about other tribes besides my own,” said Red Bow.

Another group in Seattle working towards indigenous justice is Real Rent Duwamish, which members of the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW)  launched in collaboration with members of the Duwamish Tribe on Indigenous People’s Day in 2017 . Real Rent is a grassroots organization that encourages donors to monthly give financially to support the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center.

For Farlow, the work of solidarity comes from their own struggle of understanding they live on indigenous land.

“I need to be doing work that really uplifts everyone’s dignity and part of that work is knowing where I come from and figuring out what my right size role is for addressing colonialism, racism, classism, all the -isms,” Farlow said. “Start with knowing yourself and really, really getting more into the contextual history of where you come from and how your people got here.”

One resource Farlow suggests is the Real Rent Duwamish holiday placemat, an image people can download and print and place on their table on Thanksgiving. The placemat offers support for how to make land acknowledgements, how to find the name of the land whose tribe you’re on as well as resources for a more holistic narrative surrounding the origins of Thanksgiving.

Another way to acknowledge and support indigenous justice throughout the holiday season is by buying gifts from local native artists. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center hosts an annual Native NW Holiday Gift Fair every year.

The First Nations RSO at UW also hosted a dinner Tuesday night to discuss decolonizing Thanksgiving, which included a fry bread workshop and presentations from other UW campus groups to celebrate indigenous and international cultures.

A toolkit for more details on decolonizing Thanksgiving, as well as a resource for a more thorough history behind the holiday, can be found here.

Looking to the future, however, Red Bow acknowledges the long road ahead for achieving native justice and indigenous representation in Thanksgiving.

“It’s definitely not something that’s going to happen overnight,” said Red Bow.