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Unlearning colonization: Thanksgiving as a celebration of coming together, culture, survival, healing, foods, and language


A white friend from New England asked me recently if it was okay that she didn’t want to feel guilty about celebrating Thanksgiving.

She framed the question in an interesting way, “Wars have always been fought over land. America is the only place I can think of, except maybe Australia, where the victors have to apologize for winning.”

What she wanted was permission to feel grateful for the abundant blessings in her life of family, friends, home, and the true love of her husband; and to feel happy about a holiday that celebrates these things. Gratitude is the most central spiritual discipline, so I encouraged her to indulge deeply in the feeling.

My family hosted three international students for Thanksgiving, two from South Africa and one from Spain. We shared with them that Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday: it’s secular, open to everyone, and mostly about a ritualized meal. I asked if they had similar harvest festivals in their home countries and the answer was no.

The ethos of colonization underlaid both these conversations.

We had a common frame of reference with the young men from South Africa. Their country and ours both suffer from the effects of colonialism.

That common understanding is not there yet with my friend. She has devoted her life to service of others through work with churches, the homeless, and now as a fundraiser for a historically racially and socio-economically integrated women’s college. But she has not yet had to recognize and unlearn colonialized thinking.

Our conversation made me realize how much I have learned and how much I have still to learn. Amongst my tiwahe we often teasingly say to each other, “Don’t be a colonizer!” when one of us has yet another ah-ha moment of realization that we’ve been thinking like a colonizer and didn’t even know it.

(And remember, colonialized thinking doesn’t just apply to people. It’s in our attitudes about the earth, our shared resources, how we think about capitalism, work, rest, play and health care.)

I used this phrase with my friend. I told her the important thing is not to feel guilty, but to do something to break down colonialization when you can.

I thought of a wonderful article by Corrine Oestrich (Lakota/Mohawk) entitled “As A Native American, Here’s What I Want My Fellow Americans to Know About Thanksgiving.” (Link below, I recommend you read the entire thing.)

Oestrich gives the compelling example of working at an elementary school and seeing a child skipping home wearing a feather headdress/wapáha made from construction paper. Reading her description, I was immediately plunged back in to my own first grade classroom.

She says the image belies the violence inherent in Thanksgiving:

I froze. It had been years since I was in elementary school myself, and I had completely forgotten about this approach to celebrating Thanksgiving in our schools. I felt sick…

This happened to be the same time as the protests at Standing Rock, and all of the violence my friends went through was a stark contrast to this skipping boy. Here I was sneaking out on my breaks to watch my friends at Standing Rock get sprayed by ice cold water, beaten by police officers, thrown in dog kennels and bitten by security dogs, all while praying and wanting clean water, while another generation of children was being shown that dressing up as an “Indian” was fine on Thanksgiving.

She says an elder helped her to reclaim the holiday as a celebration of her family’s culture, survival, healing, foods, and language.

This is quite simply the best definition of Thanksgiving for all Americans — no matter how we got here — and the essence of what we tried to communicate to our guests over our Thanksgiving table.

Oestrich told of meeting former NFL player Colin Kaepernick at the indigenous-led sunrise celebration of Thanksgiving at Alcatraz. Kaepernick came observe and learn. This is the best thing any of us can do: attend humbly, listen, be open to a shift in our understanding of the ways our own thinking has been shaped, and wait for those ah-ha moments when we can stop thinking like a colonizer.

Editor’s note: In addition to the article by Oestrich, I also recommend: 

This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later. Long marginalized and misrepresented in U.S. history, the Wampanoags are bracing for the 400th anniversary of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621.

Dana Hedgpeth, November 4, 2021, Washington Post.

www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/11/04/thanksgiving-anniversary-wampanoag-indians-pilgrims/

As A Native American, Here’s What I Want My Fellow Americans to Know About Thanksgiving:

Take time during dinner to recognize whose traditional lands you give thanks on.

Corinne Oestreich, November 22, 2018, Huffington Post

www.huffpost.com/entry/native-american-thanksgiving_n_5bf594b5e4b03b230f9df6ad

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