The problem with the Thanksgiving myth
Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday. It is certainly my favorite secular holiday, though not at all because of the mythology and imagery around it. I love Thanksgiving in spite of its story, which attempts to normalize the colonization of this continent and genocidal actions towards the indigenous peoples of this land. I love every year we travel to spend time with the extended family of my maternal grandmother and her siblings: the Kikers.
Thanksgiving dances between religious, cultural and secular influences, but Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today is a manufactured holiday. While harvest feasts are nothing new, Thanksgiving as an official institution with a fixed date began with Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, during the Civil War, Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to occur on the final Thursday of November. It’s story, of puritan settlers and Native Americans sharing a feast together, was a story designed – at least in its present iteration – to encourage a spirit of reconciliation between the North and South.
The myth sounds harmless, even beautiful. But there is a veiled subtext to it: the reason a shared feast between settlers and indigenous people was so incredible is because the two groups, like North and South during the Civil War, were in conflict. Whether or not any such feast ever actually occurred is beside the point; there is a power imbalance at the heart of the Thanksgiving myth. What gets packaged as “people putting aside differences” is in fact a far more sinister process of oppressor expecting the oppressed to just get along and play nicely. By selling a story of Native Americans playing by the rules acquiescing to settler-colonialism, the Thanksgiving story delegitimizes Native American objections to the settler-colonial project.
Hundreds of years later, we’re still celebrating Thanksgiving in a way that perpetuates antiquated and problematic myths. And hundreds of years later, actual indigenous people are still fighting settler-colonialism. Most recently and most visibly, the struggle has taken the form of the protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has spearheaded one of the largest multi-tribe actions of indigenous resistance in American history, in order to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The oil pipeline would cross treaty lands and threaten indigenous water reserves.
Extreme police force has been used against indigenous protesters and their supporters, with almost no media coverage. Water cannons have been fired on protesters in temperatures that are below freezing, putting health and lives at risk. Now, the Army Corps has given a date – December 5 – as the day they intend to clear all protesters from the pipeline route. Protesters have vowed to remain, as is their right, but based on how the United States traditionally has treated Native Americans, based on police tactics so far, and based on the lack of media attention, the Army Corps’ threat presents a real danger to life.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating harvest with friends and family. But the myth at the core of Thanksgiving conceals a terrible reality that to this very day is violent towards Native Americans. Centuries of settler-colonialism and repression have not translated into better lives for indigenous people; quite the contrary, lands reserved for Native Americans have dwindled all the time and Native Americans face some of the most brutal policing patterns and systemic poverty. The point is not to reject family gatherings and feasts, but to reject the story that makes reconciliation the responsibility of the oppressed. Reconciliation – if we want it – is the job of the oppressor and in the context of Standing Rock the white settler is the oppressor. The responsibility is on white settlers to donate monetarily to Standing Rock, to call legislators and policymakers and to raise the voice of those on the ground at Standing Rock. We need a new story of Thanksgiving: one that doesn’t conceal imbalances of power but exposes them, one that situates reconciliation in solidarity, rather than assimilation.