When I was in preschool and elementary school, I was taught that Thanksgiving was a happy, peaceful time when Native Americans* shared a feast with their beloved pilgrim friends. I remember the class being divided up into two sections, half of which dressed as pilgrims and half of which dressed as Native Americans (cringe).
As I grew older and learned more about U.S. history in high school, I learned that European colonizers weren’t always kind to Indigenous Peoples here in the Americas. I learned that we had taken some of their land, and I learned about the Trail of Tears, but not much beyond that. I don’t think the gravity of the abuses toward Indigenous Peoples really sank in.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school for social work that I ACTUALLY learned the full truth about how Native people here in North America were treated by European colonizers. I was horrified as I learned about the extent of the racial hatred toward Indigenous Peoples, the many wars and massacres, the murder of peaceful adults and children who had hung white flags as a sign of surrender, the use of Christian faith as justification to murder, the fact that 56 million (MILLION!!) Indigenous Peoples had been slaughtered by my white ancestors.
Suddenly, the cheery narrative I had been fed about Thanksgiving fell more than a little flat. While it does appear to be true that there was some sort of harvest feast in 1621 at which colonizers and Indigenous Peoples ate together, I came to understand that my white ancestors hadn’t just smiled and shared food with Indigenous Peoples; they had brutally murdered them and stolen their land.
My family has always celebrated Thanksgiving as a holiday about personal gratefulness, and I think that’s a very appropriate way to celebrate it. But if you want to go a step further and actively counterbalance the false narrative of cheerful and friendly pilgrims and Native Americans, I think that’s also a great thing to do. Rather than gloss over the trauma, abuse, and genocide that white people inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples, we can flip the narrative at Thanksgiving by openly acknowledging it while finding ways to uplift Native people who continue to be abused and discriminated against even today. Here are a few ways:
1. Learn More About Indigenous People Groups
Taking time to learn more about this diverse group of people is a way of honoring. Read some history books. Read books by Native authors. Learn about different indigenous cultures and their traditions, especially those tribes that are local to the area where you live. Follow Indigenous People on social media and engage with their content.
(And in this vein, I am pasting some resources at the end of this blog post that may be helpful.)
2. Be Actively Anti-Racist
Call out people who say something racist or uninformed about Indigenous Peoples this Thanksgiving holiday (and beyond!). Speak out about Native American mascots, as they are disrespectful, spread negative stereotypes, and psychologically harm Native children. Talk about what you’re learning with others to encourage people to think about ways they have subconsciously bought into racist stereotypes or unknowingly used racist phrases.
3. Support Businesses Owned by Indigenous People
One of the best ways to show support to Indigenous people groups is to support their businesses. This is especially important when you consider how non-indigenous-owned businesses have exploited Native people groups by making and selling goods that resemble those that are culturally Native American (I’m looking at you, moccasins from Target).
4. Give to Organizations that Help Indigenous People
Native populations had a lot stolen from them: Their land, their relatives and friends, their health, the list goes on. Give back to them by supporting organizations that support them. A few that I have learned about (please note this is NOT an exhaustive list, and I encourage you to look for local organizations as well):
5. Serve Indigenous People Groups
Do some research and find out if there are any service projects in your area that benefit Indigenous populations. One example is Amizade, a service learning project that supports the Navajo Nation. As you seek service opportunities, make sure that your help is actually wanted and that your service is being informed by Indigenous people groups (as opposed to being led by non-indigenous people who are trying to carry out their own agenda rather than fulfilling needs expressed by Indigenous People themselves).
6. Advocate for Policies that Benefit Indigenous People
Be an ally to Indigenous People by advocating for policies that benefit them. Find out about policies in your community that impact local Native populations (reach out to local tribes and ask them directly about issues that are impacting them, or try an Internet search). Another great way to find out about policy issues is by visiting the website for the National Congress of American Indians, which advocates for tribally-driven policies on the federal, state, local, and tribal levels.
Once you have identified important policy issues, start lobbying local, state, or federal representatives to take action!
To sum up: I hope that this Thanksgiving, we can all take time to acknowledge the terrible history of harm to Native populations in the Americas while finding ways to honor and support them moving forward. If you have additional ideas of ways we can honor Indigenous Peoples this holiday season, I would love to hear them. Please leave a comment on this post!
*I acknowledge that there is not one, agreed upon, “correct” term for native/indigenous people, and that most indigenous people go by the name of their tribe rather than an overarching term for native populations. I hope my readers will also acknowledge this and be sensitive to the fact that preferences for what to be called may vary based on the individual person.
Resources for further learning (many from Native voices):
These are resources for learning more about Indigenous Peoples and the abuses inflicted upon them. These are resources that I have personally found helpful or that have been recommended to me. The historical resources that provided me my own “awakening” education several years ago were only available to me while I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Books recommended by First Nations Development Institute.
Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution by Oren Lyons et al.
20 Native American Authors You Need to Read from Open Education Database
The Canary Effect documentary.
A.I.R. Policy Center website.
100 Ways to Support – Not Appropriate From – Native People by Simon Moya-Smith.
#NativeTwitter on Twitter.
P.S. – This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase a product using a link from this post. Read more here about my disclaimers/disclosures.