How Can We Be Thankful for Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving may seem like a simple (and delicious) holiday but for Native Americans it carries a far more complicated legacy that we should all be aware of. Can we respect the past while also enjoying this day–or more importantly… should we?

By Carissa Chung

The pillowy marshmallows have just browned atop steaming sweet potatoes, the roasted vegetables are placed on the table, and finally, the turkey is practically glowing in front of you. You take a heaping spoonful of food and just as it touches your mouth–what’s that sour taste in your mouth? 

You may have heard in history, from a friend, or even a particularly educational Instagram post about the controversy that is Thanksgiving today. Its contested meaning is difficult to swallow after being taught since elementary school that the holiday is a celebration of the mutually beneficial relationship between the Wampanoag Indians and Plymouth Pilgrims, in 1621, and more broadly a celebration of Indigenous people and pilgrim’s cooperation. 

Some people do understand the dense history behind this holiday and still believe in the value of its celebration. Even Indigenous people today stress how the “idea of giving thanks is central to Native heritage and culture, and in this way, Thanksgiving is simply a chance to appreciate the good things of life like family, community, and the riches of the land” (NativeHope). There is some intrinsic value, especially in the fast-paced society that exists today, in taking a day to value gratefulness and family above all else. 

However, many who advocate for the abolition of Thanksgiving are more interested in addressing the important history that should be remembered rather than brushed over in a sense. This turkey-hand-focused view of the holiday neglects the colonization, cruelty, and even erasure of Indigenous people and their respective culture. 

A professor who specializes in Native American history, David Silverman, asserts that we largely ignore a few aspects of history that change the narrative. The issue with American history in the mainstream begins with the idea that “history doesn’t begin for Native people until Europeans arrive” (Smithsonian). Already, the point of view of indigenous people has been ignored–whether passively by erasing parts of history, or even by changing how much of it is perceived. Often overlooked is that much of the “friendly” alliances between indigenous people and settlers were not due to amicability or naivete, but rather out of fear; they had experienced settlers invading their land, “slave-raiding,” and spreading an “epidemic disease.” (Smithsonian). Further, this hierarchical dynamic culminated in the King Philip’s War, a war that began due to betrayals and controversy between native people backed by King Philip and the European settlers. This was one of the most horrifying Indian wars in history, and a war that resulted in the deaths of countless natives. 

Even beyond this eurocentric and even ignorant telling of the seemingly perfect feast, more is misunderstood. James Baker, a researcher at Plymouth Plantation, writes that from around 1890-1920 people wanted to implement “teachings to clearly define ‘Americanism’ for new immigrants” (TIME). Because of this, false stories like the Thanksgiving history we know were told and perpetuated in an attempt to easily establish the values of America while being ignorant to the mass genocide of Indigenous lives. 

Recognizing the problem is only the first part of ameliorating this historical injustice. The next step in reconciling this must be to educate ourselves, our friends, and everyone else. Although the true history of indigenous lives in regards to Thanksgiving may be harder to comprehend–especially for children–it’s vital that we still work to understand to the best of our ability. As early as in elementary school, we shouldn’t be told to make our feather head-dresses (which perpetuates the harmful stereotypes and cultural appropriation many people face) and be grateful; we need to tell the nuanced truth of this holiday.

As young adults who can grasp these ideas more than younger children taught simple ideas in hopes of less “misunderstanding”, we can work on awareness as well. Many high schoolers and even adults don’t know that November itself is National American Indian Heritage Month or the misrepresentations that still exist in history.

Beyond this, urging people to stop celebrating this national holiday is a big ask. However, the important thing to understand is that this delicious day of eating and thankfulness isn’t the problem; the issue arises in ignorance. Steven Peters, a spokesman for the Wampanoag Tribe, tells that “gathering with family, enjoying our company, sharing our blessings, and giving thanks for all that we have is a good thing” and instead urges us to simply “take a moment in that day to remember what happened to [his] people and the history as it was recorded and not the narrative that we had been given in the history books” (NativeHope).

The remembrance of the tragedies involved in Thanksgiving that stories neglect to tell should be known and acknowledged. Eliminating these misconceptions will be a long and difficult process, but, for now, we can all try to respect the indigenous history behind this holiday, educate ourselves as well as we can, attempt to stop perpetuating false narratives, while still being thankful for our food, family, and friends.