Let’s face it.
The happy-go-lucky Thanksgiving story we all grew up with isn’t true.
While the narrative of friendships, mutual trade and gathering over a turkey dinner is still taught in American public schools, we eventually learn with age that the history of the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving and Native Americans is much more complex.
Yet, this fictional tale of Thanksgiving is still featured in commercials, movies and festive decorations, wildly representing how Thanksgiving is celebrated in the USA.
So, what really happened?
The truth about Thanksgiving
The school system likes to avoid teaching the truth about Thanksgiving. It glazes over the facts with as little conflict as possible, filling the younger generation’s mind with a story that they’ll later have to unlearn.
We’re taught that Thanksgiving is all about expressing gratitude and giving thanks to friends and family, similar to what the Pilgrims did to the Native Americans some 400 years ago.
While the school story stops here, we all know that history wasn’t this civil with genocide and disease looming closely behind the corner. In fact, Squanto, who was part of the Wampanoag tribe and taught the Pilgrims how to harvest corn, was sold to slavery in Europe and, upon returning five years later, found his entire tribe wiped out by smallbox.
This event in itself is tragic. So, we’ll just briefly mention that the Pilgrims massacred 700 Native Americans during their green corn festival, which some historians believe was the true origin of Thanksgiving.
It’s safe to say that the history behind Thanksgiving is far from what we have been constantly told. Ironically, a holiday based on gratitude came from wiping out nearly a whole entire population. To this day, the conflict this fictional story has created is profoundly evident.
So, with this information, how exactly are we supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving?
Living with intention: ways to better celebrate Thanksgiving
The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
That’s relevant for most things in life, but especially true when learning that the whitewashing of history has literally brainwashed you for years. By learning and living by the truth— especially during Thanksgiving— you are liberating yourself from ignorance.
While the origin of Thanksgiving is not anywhere close to the story we have heard growing up, it still calls for a time of reflection, gratitude and appreciation for the loved ones and blessings in our lives. Even though this version of Thanksgiving doesn’t reflect the true history, we can’t deny that this is what the holiday has turned into.
You can still enjoy your Thanksgiving feast and celebrate gratitude, but here’s a few tips on how to do it with more intention.
1. Extend a thank you to the original settlers of this country
While you’re going around the table saying what you are thankful for, make sure you throw in a big ol’ thank you to the Native Americans that nourished this land before the pilgrims absolutely stripped it from them.
Recognizing the true history while celebrating Thanksgiving not only raises awareness, but also establishes intention. You are acknowledging the lives that were senselessly lost, which promotes historical consciousness, pledges the meal in honor of those who were massacred, and helps ignite an open conversation about the reality of Thanksgiving.
2. Donate to Native American foundations and local tribes
Not only did the Native Americans get nearly wiped out by Pilgrims, but they have also been forced to live on reservations without access to the same educational and financial opportunities as other Americans.
The damage done to the Indigenous communities of the United States go far beyond the origin of Thanksgiving. While we cannot give back priceless land that was home to traditions, cultural identities and a deep connection to nature, donating to Native American foundations and/or local tribes in your area can help preserve and honor their culture.
Not to mention, Native Americans have always been the protectors of the land. By donating to them and their environmental pledges, you are giving them the resources to continue their fight.
3. Instead of donating, volunteer!
If you want to really make an impact, then show up instead of opening your wallet. While donations are great, you can truly honor the cause of the Indigenous by protesting, walking or working side-by-side.
Navajo Nation, for example, provides opportunities to volunteer and help out with the tribe. If you want to give more than a few dollars, then look up the local tribes in your area and contact them about volunteer opportunities.
This volunteer effort doesn’t have to be isolated to Thanksgiving only. Native Americans and Indigenous people are leading a 24/7 fight against injustice, so you can give back and volunteer at any time throughout the year.
4. Introduce new traditions to Thanksgiving
Whether it’s reading Native American literature, appointing each person to say one fact about local tribes when sharing around the table, or encouraging a $5 donation as a new Thanksgiving tradition, there’s plenty of ways to bring more intention to Thanksgiving. Get creative and make a holiday surrounded by gluttonous eating a little more impactful.
5. Educate yourself
The best way to bring awareness to Thanksgiving and to honor the original Americans is to educate yourself. Find out who occupied the land that you currently living on and read up on their heritage. Not only are you increasing your own consciousness, but you are also enhancing your knowledge to better hold an educational and productive conversation.
6. Know the nomenclature
“American Indian,” “Native American,” “First Nation” and “Indigenous” are all widely used and are not interchangeable. Ironically, Westerners decided that the term “American Indian” shouldn’t be used, when a large amount of indigenous individuals north of the Rio Grande still identify as Indian. It’s also worth noting that some people may prefer to identify with the original name of their tribe as opposed to using an umbrella term.
Basically, don’t assume that everyone in a particular ethnic group likes to be called the same name. Generalizing people is never a good idea!
While you’re not expected to be an expert, educating yourself on the different nomenclature of the first Americans will help you better understand and navigate an educated and conscious Thanksgiving conversation.
Ready to celebrate with more awareness and intention? Then, bring these tips to this year’s Thanksgiving dinner!
**The names “Native American” and “Pilgrim” have been used as a style decision to maintain consistency. The writer acknowledges that “Native American” is not an umbrella term for the indigenous individuals of America and also acknowledges that the word “Pilgrim” isn’t entirely accurate, considering the “Pilgrims” of the time referred to themselves as Separatists and the name “Pilgrim” wasn’t coined until hundreds of years later.**