How I Decolonized my Thanksgiving Day

In the United States, the month of November was designated as National American Indian Heritage Month in 1990, it is also known as Native American Heritage Month.

During this month we celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also the perfect time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.

The month of November is also important in the U.S. because it is the month when one of the most popular holidays takes place; Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Day is an annual national holiday in the U.S. and Canada which celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Most Americans believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest fest shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people. However, for most Native Americans, Thanksgiving is NOT a day of celebration or even a holiday. Many Native Americans consider this day a “Day of Mourning,” as many Native Americans ended up displaced from their homeland and forced to live in reservations after the English settlers established their colonies on tribal lands.

To read more about why Native Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving, I invite you to read my blog post 1621 and the Thanksgiving Myth

Being aware about the tragic history and one-sided narrative that Thanksgiving Day represents in the U.S., I was faced with a dilemma, should I partake in the popular American Thanksgiving celebration and adopt it as part of my family traditions knowing full well what this holiday represents to Native Americans or should I just refuse to partake in those Thanksgiving celebrations as a way of peacefully protesting against this holiday.

When I was in college, I tried to refuse to partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, I refused to attend Thanksgiving dinners and reunions with friends as a way to protest against this holiday. But when I became a mother and had a family of my own my perspective changed. Even though I try to teach my kids accurate Native American history including the “Thanksgiving myth,” schools, people and society teach them a very different story that is not based on facts and I’m concerned that my kids will become more influenced by the popular belief of this society for fear of not wanting to be different.

I’m not one to follow popular belief and have no problem standing up to peer pressure, but after much thought and faced with this Thanksgiving dilemma, I realized that I needed to came up with a compromise about Thanksgiving Day, so I thought, why not celebrate Thanksgiving and give it a new meaning and celebrate our own values? Why not use this day to educate friends, family and others about Native American history, specifically about what really took place in 1621?

I wanted to be careful on how to plan my family reunions and how to approach the topic with family and friends, I didn’t want to be the person who dampens the mood during family reunions by talking about “depressing” subjects. I say this because it has been my personal experience that most people in the U.S. do not like to hear the stories of Native Americans and their hardships as they often label them as “too depressing” for their holidays.

So, I decided to use foods as a way to approach sensitive topics while still trying to remain amicable.

About nine years ago, I started to decolonize my Thanksgiving dinner. I was inspired by a book I read called, “American Indian – Celebrating the Voices, Traditions, and Wisdom of Native Americans.” This book contains beautiful pictures of the ancestral foods that Native Americans used to eat before the arrival of European settlers on tribal lands and tells the history of those ancestral foods and the significance they had for the survival of Native American tribes.

Needless to say, after reading this book I was ready to create my own Thanksgiving celebration inspired by the foods of our ancestors.

For my ‘New Decolonized Thanksgiving dinner’, I wanted to include familiar foods and foods that were new to my family and friends. I included turkey because turkey as we know it today, domesticated turkey, originated in Mexico with the Aztecs as well as in the Southwest in the U.S. For my side dishes, I wanted to include at least a new side dish that my family and I hadn’t tried before so the first year I created my new decolonized Thanksgiving dinner, I made “Squash Stuffed with Quinoa and Wild Rice.” This side dish was a success and my family loved it!

Every year since that first decolonized Thanksgiving Day, I have tried to make different Native American dishes that include at least two or three ancestral foods. This allows me to enjoy my Thanksgiving Day while sharing with my family the story of 1621 and how the Wampanoag people helped the English settlers to survive on tribal lands.

I also had the opportunity to share these stories with members of my extended family and friends. For example, last year, I was invited to spend Thanksgiving Day at a friend’s house with her family. I took this opportunity to make a special dish called “Three Sisters Salad,” which calls for the three Native American staple foods, corn, beans, and squash. This dish allowed me to bring up the history of ancestral foods and how they still play an important part in Native American communities.

Three Sisters Salad – corn, beans, and squash

As I mentioned before, this is going to be the ninth year since I’ve been celebrating a Decolonized Thanksgiving Day and I look forward to it every year! Each year, I plan the menu ahead of time with my family and ask them what they would like to eat for this special day, we always vote for turkey, but we try to make new recipes every year.

For Thanksgiving Day, this year, I will be replicating the special dish “Squash Stuffed with Quinoa and Wild Rice,” which I prepared on my fist decolonized Thanksgiving dinner. Wild rice or manoomin is native to the Great Lakes region of North America, it is an important food source to the Ojibwe people who still live in the Great Lakes region. Squash is a staple food to the indigenous people of the Americas and quinoa is an ancestral food to the Andean people of South America. Quinoa is an Andean plant which originated in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. It was cultivated and used by pre-Columbian civilizations and was replaced by cereals on the arrival of the Spanish, despite being a local staple food at the time.

What a better Thanksgiving side dish to show the interconnection between North, Central and South American indigenous peoples!

While reflecting about Thanksgiving Day, I realized that this holiday does not have to be this dark, gloomy holiday about how Native Americans lost their land and were mistreated by the English settlers. I can make it what I want it to be! after all, Thanksgiving Day has a different meaning to everyone, some people in the U.S. use this day to celebrate the blessings of the past year and give thanks to God, others, like to celebrate their forefathers’ accomplishments and bravery for landing safely on tribal lands when they first arrived to America on the Mayflower in 1621 and others, including myself, use this day as a day of remembrance, a day to commemorate the arrival of European settlers in North America and their impact upon our Native American people and our cultures, along with that, we also acknowledge the centuries of genocide that followed, which is not an easy thing to do, but we must not forget.

I personally like to use this day to celebrate our Native American culture, traditions and histories. I use this time to educate my family and friends about Native Americans and the struggles they are facing right now and how they have overcome those challenges.

This is how my family and I adopted a new tradition, a tradition that actually has meaning to us, one where we get to choose the narrative and is not based on lies such as the Thanksgiving myth of 1621 that has been taught in schools in the U.S.

May you and your family have a Happy Thanksgiving, may you have good health and remember to be thankful to the people who came before you, the hardships they had to endure so that you could be here today!

Happy Thanksgiving 2021

There are 2 comments

  1. Bama

    Creating a decolonized version of Thanksgiving is such a brilliant idea, Liz. I love how this was a result of compromising a popular celebration with the introduction of what has been lost in the centuries after 1621. I hope this idea will be embraced more widely by Americans.

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