The holidays which nations decide to elevate matters. While nearly all holidays nationally celebrated in the U.S. are a reflection of Western values and culture, two stand out as major glorifiers of Eurocentric imperialism: Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. Every year, it seems a debate flares up around each of these holidays about whether we should continue to celebrate them.
The answer for Columbus Day is more obvious: it’s time for us to drop it. Put plainly, it celebrates a man who enslaved Amerindians, forced Christian culture upon them and marked the beginning of a deluge of European encroachments and crimes that haven’t stopped since. Not to mention that Christopher Columbus didn’t “discover” America in the first place: the first humans crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia into the Americas 16,500 years ago. Columbus probably wasn’t even the first European to set foot in the Americas: Leif Erikson likely set foot in the Americas four centuries before Columbus.
The case of Thanksgiving is more nuanced: while celebrating European imperialism for its own sake is certainly problematic, giving thanks for our lives is slightly more innocuous on its own. That, of course, does not change that Thanksgiving is implicated in the history of the genocide of millions of Native Americans.
We generally learn that Thanksgiving’s first occurrence was in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when around English pilgrims and 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe shared a three-day feast after the Wampanoag tribe helped the Mayflower passengers adapt to the land and survive.
While this event likely took place, it may not be the origin of Thanksgiving as we know it today – some localities had been celebrating versions of Thanksgiving much earlier than 1621. Others say that the origin of the holiday as we know it today occurred in 1637, when the governor of the Massachusetts colony declared a celebration for colonial soldiers who had just murdered 700 men, women and children of the Pequot tribe.
In the end, the origin of Thanksgiving doesn’t matter so much: Whether in 1621, or 1637, the modern holiday is rooted in the period that marked the cusp of the systematic displacement, dehumanization and genocide of millions of Native Americans.
Furthermore, both instances are detrimental in their representation of Native American culture: in the 1621 version, the Wampanoag are reduced to the white man’s faithful servants and guides – the ultimate sidekicks to the noble pilgrims. Plus, white people can use this happy version of the origin of Thanksgiving to absolve themselves from any complicity the oppression of First Nations. In the more brutish 1637 origin, the holiday celebrates the systematic extinguishing of Native Americans. Either way, the origins of Thanksgiving trivialize, exploit generally misrepresent Native American culture.
And the origin of the holiday doesn’t even fully account for the appropriation that occurs today: Sean Sherman, a chef and member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, points out that many Thanksgiving favorites are made with indigenous foods – “turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice and the like.” And that says nothing of the white school children who dress up as Native Americans for Thanksgiving skits and other representation at school.
This history of oppression and appropriation is why, since 1970, the United American Nations of New England have designated Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning. Also in light of this brutal history, Professor Robert Jensen of the University of Texas at Austin has said, “one indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.”
Indeed, the very notion that Thanksgiving is a day of feasting and consumption is not only ironic in light of the historical oppression of Indigenous peoples but also because of their plight in this country today: one in three Native Americans in the U.S. lives in poverty, one in four faces hunger and roughly one in 10 is unemployed.
Still, unlike Columbus Day, some think that Thanksgiving is not an entirely lost cause. “Many of my indigenous brothers and sisters refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving, protesting the whitewashing of the horrors our ancestors went through, and I don’t blame them. But I have not abandoned the holiday. I have just changed how I practice it,” says Sean Sherman.
According to Sherman, Thanksgiving represents an opportunity to raise consciousness of not only Indigenous people’s oppression but also their presence. This, of course, would require a change in the way we conceptualize, represent and teach about the holiday. As a chef, Sherman sees food as a great way to increase this understanding and reverence – as long as we understand the cultural contexts of those foods and dishes.
“The thing is, we do not need the poisonous pilgrims and Indians’ narrative. We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude,” reflects Sherman.
And I agree. It is certainly a meaningful gesture to set aside a day to give thanks.
But to make sure that we are giving thanks in a way that doesn’t contribute to persistent structures of Western imperialism and the erasure of indigenous cultures, we must act deliberately, individually and collectively, to grow more conscious of the implications of Thanksgiving and of the presence and plight of Indigenous peoples in this country. Switching the date of Thanksgiving, the way we teach about Thanksgiving and even codifying a different meaning for the holiday could all detach Thanksgiving from its oppressive roots and redefine it as a day of individual gratitude with our friends family as well as collective solidarity with Indigenous peoples.
So, this Thanksgiving, consider doing research on the tribes upon whose land you live today – because we’re all on stolen land. (In Athens, we are on Hopewell, Adena, Shawnee, and Osage land.) Consider how your food has roots in Indigenous cultures. Perhaps, if you have the means, donate to a relief fund benefiting Native Americans, who are being especially hard hit by the pandemic. Make sure not to give any false representations of Indigenous peoples to any children you may be around. And well beyond Thanksgiving Day, advocate for Indigenous peoples and against the inequitable systems that have led to their oppression today.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.