Is Thanksgiving a Day of Thanks, or a Day of Mourning?

Reported by Jen Wright

Thanksgiving is one of the most “American” holidays we celebrate. Turkey, football and family mark the fourth Thursday in November for most of us as a time to be thankful — and eat a lot of good food.

But for many other Americans, that day is a day of remembrance and sorrow.

For Native Americans, the fourth Thursday in November is their “National Day of Mourning.” This day is a time to remember the violence and loss of culture Native Americans have suffered at the hands of colonizers.

The United American Indians of New England (UAINE) started the National Day of Mourning 49 years ago as a rally honoring the Native Americans lost in the Pequot genocide in 1637, and the modern struggles their people face today.

“Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture,” according to the UAINE website. “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

I will begin by stating that I am white, and I have no Native American heritage that I know of, and my ancestors were some of the many waves of immigrants that came to North America after the “original” colonization of it.

I am passionate about learning about the history of the real America, the America before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth in 1620, the American peoples that suffered horrendous tragedies throughout our short history.

My family always celebrated Thanksgiving by focusing on the Christian side of it, reading devotionals and praying, expressing thanks to God for the things we have, and the people we love. This is not a bad thing.

But I also see cheap costumes and kitschy knick-knacks for sale everywhere, encouraging people to dress up as “Indians.” The appropriation of Native American culture breaks my heart, as we have reduced it to a costume, ignoring the symbolism and spirituality behind the traditions we sell every Halloween and Thanksgiving.

I don’t think the way my family celebrates Thanksgiving is wrong, but we were wrong to ignore the other side of the history behind that day.

We all read books about Tisquantum, or “Squanto,” a Patuxet who played a definitive role in the survival of the pilgrims at Plymouth. My family has a dramatized version of the story we listen to every Thanksgiving, but that story only told a small part of the terrible acts committed against Native Americans.

What we don’t talk about is the genocides, stolen land, violence and the everyday racism Native Americans still experience. This is the history we leave out in schools, and it’s an integral part of the Thanksgiving many of us ignore.

I don’t think we should stop being thankful on Thanksgiving, but we need to start acknowledging the other side of the story. We need to start talking about the Native American narrative in history instead of trying to erase it.

You don’t have to lead a march or write a book, but you can make sure you know the real history of Thanksgiving, and be conscientious about the way you talk about it. You can find ways to support the Native American communities all over the U.S., and you can double-check the traditions you or your family practice on Thanksgiving.

Maybe we won’t stop celebrating Thanksgiving, but there are many ways we can, as a nation, be kinder and more open to our Native American neighbors and their story. This starts with you and me, and it’s our responsibility to know the truth about our nation’s past.

Jessica DaughertyComment