Every year I struggle. Not just with the words, but how to explain to my daughter the intense truthful history of colonization. Thanksgiving feels like such a hoax and I am working to embrace it from a different direction. So far, our approach is to consider it as a way to come together in family, love, and light. To celebrate our togetherness. I feel lucky that I sit at a table with family where I experience solidarity. We all acknowledge the harm in the world and each have worked in various ways to make change and be different.
Two years ago, my kid really liked bedtime stories and around Thanksgiving I shared the true story of Thanksgiving. She was made aware that the colonizers came to this country and took land from indigenous people. That they celebrated their first “Thanksgiving” after the massive slaughter of the Pequot people in Connecticut. It was one of her most requested stories. I learned pretty early on the importance of repetition in her life. She likes to replay a lot, hear the same stories over and over. Sometimes, I think she is carefully studying, learning, piecing it all together in her ever forming brain.
Last year, we went out to dinner the day after Thanksgiving with our family and on the drive home, she asked, “do you know about the Wompanoags?” My first reaction was “where did that come from?” After realizing we had just driven past Wompatuck State Park, and calming myself from her obvious brilliant early reading skills, I said yes and asked her what she knew. She shared that she had been learning about them in school. This I knew, as the Director of the school had been kind enough to share what they teach the kids. I knew they focused on local indigenous people and their stories. A few minutes later, she said “Wompanoags kind of look like trolls.”
I quickly realized her vision of these people was centered on the stereotypical version of Native Americans with mohawks. This image is everywhere and even though it holds incredible cultural meaning to Native American people, I knew that I wanted her to see them as more than just how they looked. I told her that Native American people had many different types of clothes and symbols they wore on their bodies that meant a lot of different things, but that they were also people and wore clothes like us sometimes too. I reminded her that her Great Grandma was Native American and that meant that she was a little bit too. She asked, “can I wear those clothes?” I told her no and found myself trying to explain cultural appropriation to a three year old. But she quickly understood that as white people, we don’t wear the cultures of other people, but we can look at them and appreciate them.
This year, I bought her a book called “The People Shall Continue” by Simon J. Ortiz. We read it the day it came and I have to admit it was hard for me to read. It’s intense as it speaks to colonization, mass genocide, and the continued oppression of not only Native Americans but also people of color, LGBTQ folks and others. She set this book aside from her others. She hasn’t asked to read it again, but she is keeping it carefully. It’s amazing how I can see her see my intensity and truth. She wants to always hold this carefully, even if she doesn’t fully feel it or understand it. But she feels me, which I feel grateful for.
Instead of eating dinner on Thursday this year, we watched a live stream of the Day of Mourning in Plymouth. It opened with speakers addressing colonization and the repeated harm that has since been done and introduced into our lives. They named that we brought sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc. They spoke to solidarity to those also experiencing repeated oppression in this country, and the pain and mourning that Thanksgiving Day means for indigenous people. My kid watched some, played and listened at the same time. I had no expectation for her to take in such intensity, especially after seeing how she was with the book. But I wanted to set the example that we are going to uplift this message year after year. We are choosing to continue to have meals with our loved ones because it brings us together. But we are thoughtful about the food we eat, where it comes from and we are committing to some type of action every year. Last year it was donations to Standing Rock, this year to United American Indians of New England (UAINE). We also read a blessing before dinner that acknowledged the current state of our existence, the harm to our people and our county, and our commitment towards change.
I still don’t know that this is enough and I feel conflict on the approach. I do feel thankful that there are friends in my life who also provide some guidance. I only know about the Day of Mourning because of a friend 4 years ago. I wrote my own blessing because I was inspired by a friend who has shared hers every year. I choose the food we eat depending on the relationship to the environment, again due to the inspiration of others. We are surrounded by love and solidarity. I know this is not the case for all families, but I hope our commitment, our story shows that we can make new traditions. Ones that are built on honest history, understanding, and intention to step into this world differently. I also acknowledge that there is still so much left to learn, so much left to teach. But I feel grateful that many of us get to fill our bellies with nourishment from these foods, and many are also aiming to fill their hearts through action and love.
In the words of a brilliant, beautiful indigenous friend – Happy “Non Celebration of Native American Genocide” Day. Here’s to continuing the holiday tradition of breaking down the lies and uplifting justice.