Just Be Thankful? Just be Truthful!

By Elizabeth Digby-Britten

This time of year brings up so many reminders of genocide and cultural appropriation for Indigenous people. Thanksgiving is a celebration of genocide. The Wampanoag Nation recognizes it as a National Day of Mourning. Please digest that along with your turkey on Thursday.  

Most white people tell me I need to just focus on being thankful. Fun fact: As an Indigenous people, we are taught to be thankful 365 days a year. The message they are sending me is to forget about the genocide and be grateful. Grateful for what? That Indigenous land was stolen, my ancestors were raped and killed, my relatives are still being raped and killed, we were not allowed at one time to leave our reservations, and that we were not allowed to learn our language and culture? What am I supposed to be thankful for on Thanksgiving? The fallacy that is continued to be taught to our school aged children?

I am thankful for my resilient ancestors that were able to survive genocide. I am thankful for my children who have been raised with a deeper understanding of our Anishinaabe culture. I am thankful that I was able to get an education and use my cultural lenses to question what is being taught.  

The first “Thanksgiving” happened in 1621 and it was really three days of peace talks. There were 52 pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag male warriors. All that we know they ate were turkey and deer. Within a year the pilgrims killed off the entire Wampanoag village and stole their land. They spread smallpox and committed genocide toward the Indigenous people who tried to help them. This has continued up until present day as we are still killed and our land taken. They would then hold thanksgiving celebrations to celebrate genocide. That is what Thanksgiving is. George Washington tried to make it a holiday in 1789 but it was forgotten until Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863. Lincoln was no friend to Indigenous people. 

If schools aren’t willing to teach the true history, then wait until students are developmentally able to understand. We don’t teach about the holocaust in Germany until students are in middle school. We should also wait to teach about Thanksgiving. Or at least most of you have to wait to teach white students this history. Our BIPOC students and other diverse groups have to learn this history at a much younger age. They aren’t always shielded by white, cis, hetero, Christian, middle class, and ableist privilege. 

Would it be okay if elementary schools dress up as Nazis and Jewish people and have a peace meal? If the thought makes you cringe, then understand why Thanksgiving makes us cringe. Teachers dress up their students as pilgrims and sometimes even “Indians”.  They perpetuate the Thanksgiving myth and refuse to teach the truth. One year my child’s teacher planned a lesson on pilgrims and what they needed to survive, totally negating the fact that they killed Indigenous people in order to do so. 

And yes, you will find some Indigenous people will celebrate Thanksgiving. We also have Indigenous people who are Christian or conservative. Many may not understand the complex history as they were given a whitewashed version.

So while you are eating your traditional Thanksgiving meal maybe, just maybe, talk about what really happened and what is still happening to Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous people have a lot to be thankful for, mainly because a lot of what they have once belonged to Indigenous people. I know I would be thankful if people would teach the truth. 

Further Reading:

  • Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.
  • There There by Tommy Orange.
  • Rethinking Columbus by Bigelow and Peterson.
  • Thanksgiving, a Native Perspective.
  • 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac (A simpler version for kids).
  • Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp.

Elizabeth Digby-Britten is Lac Courte Oreille Ojibwe and is Bear Clan. She has been a resident of La Crosse since 2015. She has a master’s degree in education and has taught students from age two to adult. Top image credit: John Harrington/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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