Giving thanks the Indigenous way

Thanksgiving may be the ritualised glorification of genocide and conquest, but does it have to be?

Protesters block a route 6 in Mandan on Thanksgiving day during a protest against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota, U.S. November 24, 20
FILE: Protesters in North Dakota block route 6 in Mandan on Thanksgiving Day in 2016 [Reuters]

In the United States, the fourth Thursday of every November is observed as Thanksgiving. You may have heard the fabled yarn of its humble beginnings: the one where pilgrims who had fled religious persecution in England celebrated a bountiful harvest with a feast featuring local Native Americans as guests.

Interestingly, that incarnation of Thanksgiving did not appear until the mid-1800s. Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of the poem that became “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, lobbied hard to make Thanksgiving – already a popular annual tradition in New England – a national holiday, and she used such an origin story to do it. She found that story in a book by clergyman Alexander Young called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (1841). The book contained the text of a letter by a pilgrim recounting a comparable harvest celebration that happened in 1621. 

Hale was successful in her effort and, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday, using it as an opportunity to commemorate Union victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War. He was also taking a cue from President George Washington, who had likewise proclaimed a “Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer” after winning the American Revolution. 

But the Thanksgiving tradition did not have the benign roots Hale and Young had portrayed. Its actual basis appears to have been the appropriation of native harvest feasts that had been taking place in North America for millennia, in order to celebrate Indigenous genocide and territorial conquest. 

In 1637, Massachusetts Governor William Bradford declared an official “Day of Thanksgiving” to celebrate the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women and children. In his book “Of Plymouth Plantation”, Bradford described the slaughter in gory detail: It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fyer and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente,” Governor Bradford wrote. “But the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

As you can see, when we pull away the white-washed veneer of the holiday, it is little more than the ritualised glorification of the extermination of an entire race of people.

But does it have to be?

There are many native communities who use the nationally designated holiday of Thanksgiving to dine with extended family – but they are not doing it to celebrate “Thanks-Taking”, as it has been coined by those who know its true history. We are partaking in harvest feasts that Indigenous nations have observed in the Americas since at least 10,000 BC.

Even now, feast days are still held throughout the year by southwest tribes. They include traditional dances, cultural activities, ceremony and banquets.

The Ottawas, who live in the northern regions of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, host ghost suppers in November, where they cook a large meal and invite everyone in the community to attend. These dinners are meant to honour loved ones who have passed on. People travel from one supper to the next until they have eaten at each one.

It is also a tradition of my people, the Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation), to fix a plate filled with food that is set aside for spirits when we share a meal.

My people follow ancestral teachings and we have seven core values that we hold high: wowaunsila (compassion), wowauonihan (respect), wowacintanka (patience and tolerance), wowahwala (humility), woohitike (bravery), woksape (wisdom), and wacante oganake (generosity).

Generosity and gratitude are so revered that the most powerful among us are not those who hoard wealth. Rather, they are those who give the most to others, especially to those who need it most. Materialism is frowned upon, and to be called stingy or greedy is considered a grave insult. We aim to give freely to our brethren without counting the cost.

Generosity and gratitude are espoused in our daily lives and important occasions are marked with a “giveaway”, where families give all manner of items to community members to honour kin for various reasons. Useful household goods, home decor, starquilts, blankets, art, horses, clothing, furniture and anything else you can think of may be given away at these occasions and there is often a feast of thanks associated with it.

Giving thanks is a common theme in our ceremonies and prayer songs too, and honouring Mother Earth and the abundance she provides us with is a key part of our culture.

This is what Thanksgiving could be, but in order for that to happen, we must recognise the truth of the holiday’s revolting colonial origins. It may sound cliche, but when we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

For the past few years, Thanksgiving has been hard for me. In 2016, mere days before the holiday, the Oceti Sakowin and our allies were attacked by militarised police at Standing Rock for protecting ancestral burial sites and the fresh water source of millions of people, both native and non-native, from a pipeline that would be forced through our land at the point of a gun.

They used water cannon on unarmed civilians when the air temperature was below freezing. People were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. Hundreds were injured, including one young woman who suffered permanent damage to her arm and another who nearly lost an eye.

On that fateful night that some call Bloody Sunday, when my heart was broken and we became one with our ancestors, I recognised that the atrocities our grandmothers and grandfathers had faced – the brutality, blind hatred and aggression, the massacres and acts of genocide which inspired Adolph Hitler himself – had not ended and could happen all over again.

America, Custer may have died for your sins, but there will be no absolution without truth. Only then can we hope to charter a new path, as one. The true spirit of Thanksgiving cannot be honoured when it is forged in white supremacy and dipped in Indigenous blood.

Acknowledging our shared history can help put an end to vicious destructive cycles meant to fill spiritual emptiness, and replace it with grateful hearts that will bring families and communities together, united in purpose, giving thanks for nature’s bounty. Then, not only will our bodies be nourished, but our souls will be too.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.