When I was younger, and throughout my life up until now, Thanksgiving was about getting together with family, as the leaves were falling. Everything was orange, red, and brown as the air got crispier and crispier. It was about being thankful and grateful for all of our blessings. It was marked with the Lions football game, tons of potatoes and turkey, and “Pilgrims and Indians” dress up days at school.
Yup. Pilgrims and Indians dress up days. A way to “cute up” and integrate the story of the First Thanksgiving, the one about how the Pilgrims and Indians shared a harvest feast. Before the genocides, of course...which wasn’t taught in those early grades. Then when it was taught, it was quick and glossy. A thing of the past. “Oops, yeah, that was sad that people were mean to other people, but here we are now and wasn’t that a crazy time in history?”
I dressed up as a first or second grade Indian as I made turkey decorations from construction paper. Here’s the thing though (or, quite a few things actually): Indigenous dress and regalia is not a costume. Indigenous peoples are not a phase of U.S. history. The erasure of Indigenous peoples made me think that, for the most part, they didn’t really exist anymore. And that’s just not true. So, in case you didn't know or needed a reminder, if you are not Indigenous DO NOT USE INDIGENOUS DRESS AS A COSTUME. EVER. It's disrespectful. I should not have been "in costume", child or not, school sanctioned or not.
What I’ve learned since then, and what I’m still learning.
"Indians" was a blanket term used when I was back in school to denote Native Americans, American Indians, or Indigenous People. A blanket term used because there was little distinction between different nations. There were a few nations that got mentioned, but I’ve since learned that there are many distinct nations with different languages, customs, cultures, etc. I don’t remember what I wore to school, but I am 100% positive that I had absolutely no clue which culture(s) I was appropriating.
The website for the National Congress of American Indians says that “There are 574 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities and native villages) in the United States. Approximately 229 of these ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nations are located in Alaska; the other federally recognized tribes are located in 35 other states. Additionally, there are state recognized tribes located throughout the United States recognized by their respective state governments.”
There are some nations that are unrecognized in the eyes of the United States government, which is another form of erasure.
The term "Indian", as it was applied during my grade school years, holds racism from its use by colonial settlers' monolithic application to a huge number of distinct groups. That being said, it's best to refer to people as they would like to be referred to. Indian to some Indigenous people might be offensive, and to others it might not- another example how Indigenous people are not a monolith.
It is important for me to note that I'm using the term Indigenous people(s) as the United Nations does to "refer broadly to peoples of long settlement and connection to specific lands who have been adversely affected by incursions by industrial economies, displacement, and settlement of their traditional territories by others." (https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/terminology/)
Thanksgiving, then and now
I’m struggling with these traditions that I’m finally recognizing as drenched in horrible (and on-going) histories of genocide, erasure, exclusion, and racism. Shoutout to the 4th of July, the hypocritical celebration of Freedom. While I'm thinking about this history and these relationships in relation to Thanksgiving, we should be thinking about this all year round. Acknowledging Indigenous peoples around Thanksgiving and then ignoring them every other day is unacceptable.
So, this year I'm going to take the day to practice gratitude and share a beautiful meal, as my family taught me to. (Let's all be careful and conscious about gatherings during Covid!) I will not be celebrating the Pilgrims, or the first Thanksgiving, or the Manifest Destiny mindset of the United States. It's imperative that we think critically about what we are celebrating and how other people are affected. I also ask that we (you and I both) acknowledge our part in colonization and work towards righting our wrongs.
What can I do, What am I doing
I need to do a lot more research to understand the full weight, history, and on-going issues. I don't have any easy answers. All I know is that it's well past the time for reckoning- on personal, local, and national levels.
What I’m beginning to understand is that a lot of us are occupying unceded land, stolen by the U.S. government. A good place to start would be looking up whose land you are occupying at Native Land. I am on the land of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
I'm learning about the state of and different types of treaties between Indian Nations and the U.S. and Canadian government.
I also have to recognize my involvement with the National Park Service- land that was stolen and then preserved and protected for American ( and let's be honest, mostly white) citizens. By creating these park and land boundaries, the government cut communities off from land that they stewarded, subsided on, held sacred. I'm having lots of trouble with this one- recognizing that a place/system I love was built on inhumane practices. And what do I do with that information now? How do I apply it in my life? Open questions that I'll keep working on.
I have been learning a lot of new things about Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States, the Land Back movement, Native feminist theories, environmental relationships, and my own relationships to each of those. So much of that information and spark of learning came from this month’s November syllabus put together by Rachel Cargle at The Great Unlearn. I highly highly recommend joining this group! There is a new self-paced syllabus every month curated with so much information as well as opportunities to learn from and discuss topics with experts.
Here are a few things I’ll be looking at in my own life, and I invite you to do the same!
There is so much more to learn /think about/ talk about/ work on! I'm just a beginner here, but we all have to start somewhere.