My Family No Longer Celebrates Thanksgiving—We Learn Indigenous History Instead

We used to enjoy an elaborate Thanksgiving feast, but after I began to engage with Indigenous cultures, I realized that I had to reckon with the tradition and relearn history.

Mother hugs her son

Courtesy of Danielle Marie Holland

There are plenty of educators who share how to ethically enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with your family by including a "healthy dose" of history—deconstructing colonization and learning about Indigenous communities. For a few short years, this made sense for my family. Novembers were filled with Friendsgivings focused on gratitude, community service, and good company. 

But as time progressed and I continued to read more Indigenous authors and historians and engage with artists' work, my unlearning of American history as it was taught to me evolved. It evolved so much that I reached a crossroads: I had to decide if I could continue with the motions of a Thanksgiving, or if it was time to let it go. My family decided we had to change. It was time to opt out.

My 10-year-old and I live in Seattle, a city that many consider progressive. It’s also a city that holds land acknowledgment events, or the practice of recognizing Indigenous people as the local land's stewards. While land acknowledgments in and of themselves are not intended to be more than a "starting point," they often find an ending in the same location. The hard part for organizations, schools, or corporations using them is actually putting their good intentions into practice. That could mean supporting Indigenous organizations with money or by volunteering. Contributing to Indigenous-led grassroots change movements. Committing to return land. This is indeed the hard part.

I've reflected often on this disconnect and what it means to live on the stolen land my family finds ourselves on. What does it mean when our school district releases statements professing support and commitment to Indigenous students, and yet my son has come home from school more than a few years with class handouts filled with Disney-fied images of Native Americans and pilgrims in peaceful play? How do I engage my child with an honest history, instead of with the widespread imagery and language of a make-believe one that has somehow become politically contentious to even name as such? At the core of this shared national narrative that surrounds Thanksgiving, it became increasingly challenging for my family to hold any space toward the idea of a cordial Native-colonizer relationship.

As my son has grown, our conversations have increased in their dynamisms around the erasure of Indigenous history and contemporary life. As we discuss European invasion, we talk about how we ended up here on this land, as descendants of a refugee fleeing oppression in the area now known as Lithuania. We talk about land theft of the past and how it continues today. We talk about the history of Indigenous genocide and we spend Thanksgiving day in reflection and recognition of the National Day of Mourning.

Beyond that, we look to examples of contemporary Indigenous experiences today, that are thriving and beautiful. The work of Real Rent Duwamish, and their fight for federal recognition and justice. The resilience of Indigenous leaders like Roxanne White, who empowers and supports survivors with her very being. The documentation from historians like Nick Estes, who simultaneously envisions and imagines Indigenous futures. By reading children's books like We Are Water Protectors by author Carole Lindstrom, we ask what it means to be a steward of the land.

There are many ways to hold family space together over the season. You can visit the Native Land site and app to research the history of the land you are on. You can learn more about the Native people that live there and how you can support their work, actions, and campaigns. You can sit by the fire or around the table, and together read the countless incredible kids' books by Indigenous authors and illustrators. You can curl up and watch Spirit Rangers, penned by an all-Native group of writers, for kids’ tales that explore Indigenous legends, values, and lifestyles. 

In lieu of gathering around a turkey, or pretending that underneath the pinnings of this holiday is not a genocide, there are so many beautiful ways to support and learn more about the Indigenous communities across this country. And that’s exactly what my family has committed to doing this year and every Thanksgiving to come.

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