As a child I spent the third week of November transforming brown grocery bags into vesta and strips of construction paper into feathers. My long brown hair and olive skin tone secured me an annual spot as an American Indian in the elementary school Thanksgiving performance and feast. Year after year we told the story of Pilgrims arriving in America in 1620, and because of a harsh winter they had little to eat in this new world. Friendly Indians (unaffiliated with a particular tribe), appear on the scene and teach the Pilgrims how to live in this new place. The two groups celebrate their new friendship with a feast, the first Thanksgiving.
The annual elementary school Thanksgiving feast is such prominent event from my childhood, and one I’m incredibly grateful that my own children have never experienced. While their schools have observed classroom Thanksgiving parties and Friendship Feasts with kindergarten buddies, they’ve done so without cultural appropriation. Their schools haven’t perpetuated the Thanksgiving Myth, but they also haven’t directly debunked it either. And so, that’s become something we in our household each Thanksgiving morning.
Each year we find ourselves sharing more and more of the truth as a way of decolonizing our holiday celebration. Each year we try to help our family come more to terms with the origins of this day and how we can work toward a future in which Indigenous people’s past, present, and future is respected.
The year that we moved from Virginia to Texas, we used our personal experience as an entry into the Thanksgiving conversation. I remember asking our kids to picture the giant moving truck parked outside off our house and how it signified that new people were moving into the neighborhood. The Wampanoag Tribe didn’t see a moving truck, but they did see a ship that brought new neighbors. And those ships were the same kind of ships that carried new neighbors who stole from previous generations. I asked our kids to imagine arriving in our new neighborhood and going around to all the houses and taking whatever scooters or toys that were left outside because you didn’t have yours off the truck yet.
Our conversations have evolved over the past five years. We’ve corrected the Thanksgiving myth through picture books and conversations about privileged people in power getting to tell their version of history. We’ve researched the original inhabitants of the land we occupy. One year I realized our children thought American Indians only existed in the past, so we spent the day exploring stories of modern day Indigenous people.
This year we’ll pay special attention to the church’s role in the oppression of Indigenous people. We haven’t yet talked to them about the Indian Residential Schools in our own country and in Canada that were designed to systemically westernize and christianize Indigenous children and youth. We will read together Bishop Curry’s statement on the Indigenous boarding schools from the summer and I’ll retell some of the stories I read in Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga. We will explore together the times when the church perpetuated injustice and how it later sought reconciliation for such sinful behavior, and also the times when the church bravely stood up for justice.
If your children are teenagers, you might watch the 45 minute video (Re)Telling the American Story. This video is part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian series Conversations about Our Future, and features Indigenous youth who are actively reshaping the American story.
It’s important to me that we have these serious conversations every year — before we offer thanks for our many blessings, before we feast on lovingly prepared food. It’s important to me that we learn from our mistakes and the mistakes made in our name, and that we commit ourselves to doing better in the future.
How will you talk to your children about the truth of Thanksgiving?
Will you intentionally dispel the Thanksgiving myth?