For many Natives, Thanksgiving isn’t a celebration—it’s a day of mourning

By Madison Lauterbach

Nov 26, 2020 | Equity, Features | 0 comments

//Original painting by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay. Illustration by Madison Lauterbach | mlauterbach@msmayhem.com

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a cheerful time to share a big meal and spend time with family. But for many Natives and Indigenous people, it can be a day of mourning.

We as a nation have become increasingly aware of how our history has two sides. The sanitized version taught in our homes and middle school textbooks, and the more accurate version we come to learn as we grow older. We’ve all been through the discovery that Christopher Columbus was not a good guy, slavery was the only reason for the Civil War and Jim Crow laws were far worse than we were told. 

The story of Thanksgiving that we’ve been sold is from the perspective of the white colonists who landed near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620. It is the one-dimensional representation of the “Pilgrims and Indians;” an unidentified tribe of Natives welcomes the English settlers to America. They teach them how to grow crops and survive on this new land. Then they all sit down for three happy days of feasting and thanksgiving in 1621. It was bloodless and peaceful, with the Natives all but conceding to colonialism. 

In reality, those unidentified Natives were the Wampanoag tribe, who had a century of bloody conflict with settlers that included slave-raiding by Europeans. Wampanoag leader Ousamequin did reach out to the Plymouth group for an alliance, but because he saw it as an opportunity to fend off rival tribes. This myth also doesn’t address the kidnapping of 20 Wampanoag men in 1614, the massacres of tribes like the Pequot or that English settlers robbed the graves of tribal members and stole food from them to survive. It also doesn’t mention that the deterioration of this relationship resulted in one of the most gruesome colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip’s War, during which thousands of Natives were killed or sold into slavery. 

So while many of us sit at the dinner table in a symbol of unity, for many Indigenous and Native people, Thanksgiving commemorates the arrival of white settlers to the continent and represents centuries of genocide and oppression that continues today. While some have chosen to reject the holiday entirely, many put aside the complex history and embrace the positive messages of thankfulness, giving and togetherness. It has become a chance to appreciate family, community and the land, and celebrate the autumn harvest as Native tribes have for millennia. 

This Thanksgiving, Ms. Mayhem spoke to several Indigenous people to give them a platform to share their thoughts, feelings and personal history with the holiday. These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision. 


Siren Sixxkiller. Cherokee Nation. “Your local friendly Native.” (@sirensixxkiller)

Can you explain how you feel about the celebration of Thanksgiving?

I feel really awkward about it. I feel like it’s just like, uncomfortable and awkward. I feel like it’s like one of those things that’s racist or rooted in white supremacy or colonialism and the shame or, the bad feels fall on BIPOC people. I feel like it’s not really uncomfortable for white people, or like it is, but it’s not as uncomfortable as it is for me or another Indigenous person, you know? I feel that’s shitty, but that just is sort of the way it goes. It just falls on the minority always, you know, that bad feeling, even though it’s not Native people who should feel bad about Thanksgiving or have feelings about that. So yeah, I feel awkward about it and I feel like it’s like one of those things where it’s awkward to bring up with white people that I do know. And then it’s labor that I’m doing because it’s emotionally taxing. And I know this is probably how a lot of like Native people feel. I want to talk about it, but at the same time, it is crappy to have to do labor around it. I’m trying to be mindful of that balance and taking rest, but then talking to people that I do care about. 

I also feel like it’s an excuse to be like, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s just about appreciating your family,’ [but] it’s like, my priority is to eat bomb food and appreciate my family every day of the year. I don’t need Thanksgiving to do that. So I feel like it’s a tired excuse for it.

Do you think Thanksgiving could be reclaimed in any way, like the movement to reclaim Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

I have more than just this to say, but I feel like the answer is kind of no for Thanksgiving. I feel like it’s kind of like the police where you can’t really fix something that’s based on all this bullshit. You can’t really repair it, you have to just get rid of it. You know, it’s going to be so different, done the right way that it would just be something totally different. It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving anymore. I feel like there’s nothing wrong with using that time to connect with family and eat or whatever, cause like I said, that’s what we do all the time. But I think it would also be good to take that time to consciously educate yourself about things like this. You know what I mean? Read an article or look into some Indigenous artists and Indigenous run businesses that you could support and maybe just incorporate that year-round, not just on Thanksgiving. It would be especially good to do some research on Thanksgiving and learn about the history and just spend some time sitting in that discomfort.

It’s funny cause my dad has been on this for years now, he’ll be like ‘How about a conscious Thanksgiving?’ He keeps like saying that to me, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what that is. Like what do you want me to do? Do you want us to just talk about how it’s fucked up? Like while we sit around and eat dinner?’ And I’m just like, you know I’m talking about this shit year-round. 

If you really want it to transform Thanksgiving, my suggestion would be that we just don’t have Thanksgiving off anymore and we have the same amount of time around Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Then you could spend that time just educating yourself or going to the Four Directions March if you have one where you live. Connect with your family then and talk to [them] about decolonization and why certain things might be harmful or whatever. 

On addressing relatives who are insensitive to social issues-

It’s time for BIPOC not to have to do so much labor around all this stuff, like all the education. So I think it is important. That is an important part of decolonization because we can’t get to decolonizing with just Native people doing all the work because there’s really not enough of us. And we also shouldn’t have to do all the work because that burden… doesn’t lay at our feet. 


Theresa Centeno. Indigenous Cahuilla and Mexican. (@sonrisa.reesa)

Can you explain how you feel about the celebration of Thanksgiving?

Personally? I feel like it’s more of a really sad holiday. It has more meaning and background to it rather than just being focused on, ‘Oh, the pilgrims and natives.’ It wasn’t really like that. And in schools we’re taught, you know, the first Thanksgiving was so peaceful and nice. It’s even depicted in Charlie Brown, and I feel like there’s more history to it. I like to see Thanksgiving as more of a harvest. So I celebrate more [from] the harvest view and, yeah, being thankful is nice, but it’s just like, that’s not the total story of what really happened, you know?

Do you think Thanksgiving could be reclaimed in any way, like the movement to reclaim Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

I believe it’s possible. This year, 2020, has been the most woke year of all. People are starting to see how racist people are and how things are changing and how we shouldn’t celebrate certain holidays. It’s starting to be more of a woke generation. They’re saying that Generation [Z] is bad and technology is ruining their brains, which in all honesty, maybe; but it’s more wakening us than it is breaking us. I think it needs more awareness for the whole month of November to be recognized for Native Americans because Columbus, yeah, he didn’t discover anything. We all know this, but for Thanksgiving, however, that does need a little bit more of a boost or more recognition that, ‘Hey, this wasn’t really like this. It was really like this.’ 

How do you take care of your mental health during this time of year?

During this time of the year, instead of being really sad about it, I like to bring more awareness to it. I do have a TikTok platform and I’m fully dedicated to making it more Native and Indigenous and writing more information about certain holidays, certain music. Just two weeks ago, I spread awareness to Native American costumes, you know, it’s ridiculous. A girl was wearing a headdress and thinking that it was cute when really, no, that’s not how headdresses were. She was even Native American herself, and I thought it was ridiculous. So I like to bring more awareness rather than to sit back and be quiet. I like to be more outspoken about these topics, because I feel like not so many people recognize it, or some people do, and they just think it’s not important when in all honesty, it really is important. 

How do you reconnect with your ancestors?

I’ve been studying my native tongue for about a year now. The language my ancestors spoke was Uto-Aztecan. Reconnecting is important for me. For so long I didn’t know about my own history. I didn’t know the language and I didn’t know how to dance. But I had admired it for so long because it’s so beautiful. I had to teach myself those things so reconnecting back to my roots is important. During this month of November, I love to be more focused on my Indigenous side. I am a Christian. However, because of [how] the settlers wanted to ban our religions I like to focus more on my Native American culture and what we followed and what we practiced. I like to embrace that more than my actual Christianity now because our culture was taken away. Our religion was taken away. They saw us as Pagan, they saw us as savages if we were practicing our religion.


Isabela. Indigenous Hopi, Picuris Pueblo, Piro Pueblo. (@positivesauce)

What is your take on Thanksgiving?

My take on Thanksgiving? I like to call it Thankskilling. From [my] and my family’s point of view, Thanksgiving is kind of a holiday celebrating the erasure of our people. So for us, it sucks, it hurts. And so what we do to commemorate the holiday, we don’t really celebrate Thankskilling. Instead, we use the holiday to remember our ancestors and to give them offerings. Usually what we do is we’ll go up to the mountains because right now we can’t go to the [reservation] because like of COVID and shit, so tomorrow we’ll go up to the mountains and we’ll offer tobacco and Cedar and sage to our ancestors and let them know that our existence is resistance. Us being here, this generation being here, us being alive, is literal resilience. Colonizers tried so hard to kill us off. 

How do you take care of your mental health during this time of year?

I try to stay offline because here’s the thing, though. The thing is that it’s not only white people that do this shit and that needs to be called out. I’ve seen Black people do this, I’ve seen Latinx people do this. I’ve seen a variety of people dress up as us. So I don’t…I wouldn’t say I just try and stay off social media because that’s where I see it the most, that’s where people are posting that type of thing. That’s where people are flaunting it. [I also] remind myself that people are going to be ignorant, you can try all you want to educate them, but it’s not your job to educate somebody on what is not okay and what is okay. There’s only so much energy that you can put out into educating people that want to learn. You can’t educate someone who isn’t willing to listen to what you’re saying.

What do you wish non-Natives knew about Thanksgiving?

I wish they knew that this holiday hurts. This holiday is a constant reminder that this country literally celebrates the genocide of our people. I want people to know that when you celebrate this holiday, you are celebrating the genocide of our people. Like, I understand, some people they’re like, ‘Oh, well, you know, I’m not celebrating the genocide, I just liked the food. I like to celebrate with my family.’ And it’s like, alright, that’s cool and all, but that’s not a good enough excuse in my opinion.


Jacob Platero. Indigenous Navajo and San Felipe Pueblo. (@_yacobp)

Can you explain how you feel about the celebration of Thanksgiving?

So I’m 50/50 on the subject about being sensitive and celebrating it because first and foremost, you have to recognize the genocide. The whole story itself, and not only that but the way the reservation situation is dealt [with]. Us Navajos, they gave us the shittiest land. That was kind of tough to realize, cause I didn’t realize that ‘til I was like 15. I think the agenda is [to still] try to, not get rid of us, but separate us from society. I think [the government’s] agenda is still to keep us away from the city, you know, make it difficult for us to get to the city, [have access to] education programs, funding, all that. That’s troublesome. On the other side, Thanksgiving, my family does celebrate it because there’s not a lot of us [in my family]. That sense of family gathering is something that we try to [hold onto in] our household. But Thanksgiving isn’t like a real holiday to me because there’s more of a marketing purpose behind it. 

How do you take care of your mental health during this time of year?

Me personally, I don’t get offended. I’m not sensitive as other Native Americans, I think my ancestors will want me to stay strong. There’s certain things, like dressing up as a Native American, I’ll check somebody on that. But I’m not going to be sentimental and cry about it. My ancestors were actual warriors, you know? But I understand because in different Native American cultures, like the Lakota have the headdress, that means a whole different thing from my headband being a Navajo. At the end of the day, it is a stressful month. It’s a great reminder of who I am and what I came from. It’s also empowering as well. I’m Native American, I’m one of the last ones. It’s nothing that flies over my head. It’s something that I keep with me everywhere I go, I have to remind myself who I am. 

What does Thanksgiving represent to you?

It is a colonizer holiday, almost like surrender. But at the same time, [people talking about getting rid of Thanksgiving], they live in the city, they have their privileges too. The hardships of being on the reservation, like I’ve lived there before. It is not the place to be. Half of my cousins don’t have work because they don’t have access to a vehicle to get out of the reservation. Like, the hardships of living in the reservation and you try to be all hard Native about it like, ‘Oh, you’re a colonizer.’ Well, you live in a city, you have access to flowing water, you have electricity…If you live in the city you’re contributing to [colonization] as well.


Iggy Reefe, Native name Po Pavi (Squash Blossom). Indigenous Hopi, Tewa and Sioux. Sun Forehead Clan. (@n8vgrrrl)

What does Thanksgiving represent to you? How do you feel about it being celebrated?

If we get down to the nitty-gritty, it is a celebration of genocide. A vulgar display of greed. A mythological tale of “peace” between the Indigenous people and European settlers, that which colonizers deliberately side with to allow them to feel comfortable squatting on occupied territory and silencing their shameful legacies. In a lot of ways, I feel that it is even worse than Columbus Day as it is widely celebrated. It is a commercialized demonstration of greed and gluttony, in which the masses pretend to be gracious and thankful for one another by engorging themselves and getting shit-faced. Then merely a day afterward, they proceed to trample and stampede one another at the department stores in order to get the best Black Friday deals. Everything else aside, it is truly embarrassing to watch. It is…All American.

Can Thanksgiving be reclaimed in any way?

I feel that we have already reclaimed this day in our communities. The meaning of Thanksgiving Day has adapted, and so have we. Each culture and community observe this day differently. I think one thing we can all agree on is that it is a day of mourning.

How do you celebrate your ancestors during this time and year-round?

Most people probably think we Native people just sit around and bitch and moan about “colonizer this, colonizer that.” But in my family, we never paid them any mind when we came together. When I was little, my grandmothers would host the biggest NDN [Indian] cook-off you’d ever see, complete with red and green chili, hominy, tamales, tortillas and frybread. We joined each other In love, storytelling and laughter. Now that my grandmothers have left this plane of existence, we now turn to the new Matriarchs of our generation. We learn to heal, over and over again. For my family, it is a reminder of all our ancestors persevered. All they survived, and all we continue to survive. It is a reminder of our resilience, and everything the colonizers failed to take from us.

Is there anything you wish non-Natives knew about Thanksgiving?

I just wish they took the time to educate themselves around the tribal lands [on which] they reside, and for it to become the norm to start every feast with a land acknowledgment. I feel that this is a simple and easy step in the right direction toward healing these shameful legacies and laying them to rest. I wish non-Native people took a moment to show sympathy for the Native people in their lives, educate themselves around boarding schools, missing and murdered indigenous women, pipelines/fracking, environmental racism, covert laws and policies, and other abuses that sanction the continuing genocide of our people. And instead of celebrating genocide, they acknowledge the aboriginal people of this land and all [that] they continue to do to preserve their culture, traditions, ceremonies and the beauty of this earth.


Priscilla Jerez. Nicaraguan and Peruvian. (@bonerdonor666)

What does Thanksgiving represent to you?

Thanksgiving doesn’t mean shit to me. The only one I’ve really celebrated was Friendsgiving. I think the idea of people coming together is great, but I hate that people use it as a hall pass to ignore important issues that should be discussed with their families. Especially this year with so many people suddenly discovering racism and protesting for the first time. I really hope Indigenous people [are honored on Thanksgiving] and that I don’t hear people bitch about not being able to eat with family or travel.

Can you explain how you feel about Thanksgiving being celebrated? Is it similar to how you feel about Columbus Day?  

Yeah, I say fuck ‘em both. A man at the grocery store a couple days ago told my five-year-old daughter “God bless you and Happy Thanksgiving,” and she replied with “We honor indigenous people.” And I looked at her and said, “And we don’t believe in God.” I’ve had some pretty honest and heavy conversations with her about life for the last two years, some I’m sure my parents are against, but I feel like that’s the key to real change. A child can understand that bad people hurt good people and people throw parties about it. I don’t know why it’s so hard for adults to get it.

Can Thanksgiving be reclaimed the way the Indigenous community has been reclaiming Indigenous Peoples Day?

Yes, with [the] landback [movement]. Old white men shouldn’t be making decisions on stolen land. This land belongs to the ones native to this land. 


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