For ritual nerds like me, imagining the origins of longstanding practices, understanding how they changed, and imagining how they might continue to evolve is a favorite pastime. The roots of most religious customs extend back centuries (or even millennia), so reconstructing their beginnings relies on assembling historical data and reviewing relevant legends and narratives with a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion (in other words, a skeptical lens). Thanksgiving, though, is a rare observance that both straddles the realms of “secular” and “sacred” and originated in recent enough history that its evolution is well documented and accessible. Despite this, the dominant narrative of the source and purpose of the holiday (you know the deets: Pilgrims and Indians become friends and share a turkey, blah blah blah) has effectively (if not completely) buried competing and less flattering (to European colonists and their descendants) stories. It’s a narrative that survives not on its own merits but because people choose to retell it, to institutionalize it, to formalize it, and to nostalgize it. It survives because everything from federal, state, and local decrees to Second Grade arts and crafts projects to the Macy’s parade reinforce the myth and deepen emotional connections (that often blur the lines between fact, fiction, and propaganda) to it. It survives because it projects an America that too many people want to see, despite (or maybe because of) reality.
Recognizing the discrepancy between the Pilgrim myth and the reality of colonization and genocide has been a very slow burn over the years, and few non-Native Americans really understood why Indigenous folx observe a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving. 2020, though, added plenty of fuel to the fire to confront, adapt, or eliminate practices that perpetuate systemic and baked-in injustice. Some encourage Americans to “decolonize” Thanksgiving by debunking the harmful fictions that have been added to the holiday and excavating the truth. One marketing firm even promoted a pithy, six-step guide to decolonizing Thanksgiving: Learn the real story of Thanksgiving; Find out whose land you’re on; Ask how you can serve local tribes; Decolonize your dinner; Share a blessing of gratitude; and, Share what you’ve learned. Others say that decolonizing Thanksgiving is impossible, that its observance is too firmly rooted in the myth, and, if it still fixates on telling or retelling a story about the encounter between Indigenous people and European colonizers, I have to agree.
I think there’s a third option, though: scrap the story altogether, and return to the actual roots of the observance. Until the Civil War, days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by presidents and governors at various times and in response to various events, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the idea of a fixed date for a national observance emerged. During the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November (a curious designation in itself, no?) as:
…a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.
Lincoln’s proclamation, written by Secretary of State William Seward is a masterpiece in civil theology, tugging simultaneously at the spiritual, moral, social, and heart strings of the American public in an effort to unify a nation at war. Fixing the date and institutionalizing the observance also inspired the creation of a distinctly American harvest observance and invited the projection of what “America” should look like. The legend of a friendly harvest meal shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag provided a convenient, seasonally appropriate story that provided a distinct source and evolved into a nearly-sacred story that made European colonization look like a much-welcomed invasion. Perhaps the pinnacle of this projection was Norman Rockwell’s famous “Freedom from Want,” part of his “Four Freedoms” series for The Saturday Evening Post published during the Second World War, but he was neither the first nor the last artist to idealize the observance. Hollywood expanded the ideal and turned it into a day for casual family intimacy — playing football with dad (while mom tended to the oven), important conversations and revelations (every time there’s a Thanksgiving scene, you just know someone is going to drop a bomb, right? Grandma, I’m gay. Could you pass the mashed potatoes?), and tender, memory-making moments (and much-loved or much-feared recipes).
As a kid, I remember the decor in school shifting rapidly between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Carved pumpkins were replaced by caricatured turkeys. Witches’ hats were trimmed and buckled into Pilgrim chic. In Kindergarten, we traced our hands and transformed them into turkeys (the thumb gained a wattle, other fingers picked up feathers), and once we could manage scissors and construction paper we made and wore “Pilgrims’ hats” and “Indian headbands.”
We learned that the name of our hometown was an Algonquin word, meaning ‘beautiful land,’ but we didn’t learn anything about Algonquin history, language or culture. Or the fact that nobody could actually verify the word in any Algonquin dialect. Or the fact that the name was picked by a White woman, the wife of one of the guys who developed the suburbs and economic corridor between Chicago and Fort Howard at the Green Bay.
We learned the name of the people who lived in the area before Europeans, but we never learned that Potawatomi was a reduction of the name they used to call themselves, Bodéwadmiakiwen. I was 17 before I learned that the name of my beloved Chicago was itself a French bastardization of the Bodéwadmiakiwen name for the area. Shikkakua, which translates roughly to “the place with stinky onions,” invoked the wild garlic that grew in the marsh where the Chicago River splits into north and south branches.
We learned about that magical “first Thanksgiving” between the Pilgrims and the Indians, but I was 18 before I understood that labeling indigenous people as “Indians” wasn’t just a charming quirk of history but a racist, conflationist designation and 22 before I ever heard the name ‘Wampanoag.’
I was 44 before I realized that my delimited education made it far too easy for me to look the other way in the face of statistics about the poverty of Indigenous communities, about the lack of adequate health care, education, and economic autonomy, about the ongoing lack of access to resources, about the tragic incidence of missing and murdered Indigenous women…in short, about the ongoing consequences of a genocide I was taught to ignore.
My move from Washington DC to Washington State in 2015 prompted a cross-country drive and the opportunity to visit places I knew I’d never visit otherwise. I stopped in Welcome, MN, to find Hulseman Street, evidence of my own ancestors who arrived on the plains in the mid-19th century. I stayed a night in Sioux Falls, SD, so I could visit my grandparents’ graves, part of an extended plot that includes my paternal grandfather’s family. I stopped at Wall Drug two hours after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage (unsurprising spoiler: there were approximately 73,402 types of jerky to sample but exactly 0 pride flags available at Wall Drug). I stayed a night near Mount Rushmore after visiting the monument. I took a scenic route through southern Montana and into Wyoming so I could put my feet on the ground in Yellowstone.
I admit, my intention was a sentimental tour of Americana, but my cross-continental pilgrimage as tempered by a few impromptu history lessons and some very-welcome unlearning. When I needed to find a bathroom, I found myself absorbing the history and culture communicated through the Atka Lakota Museum. I never thought to visit Wounded Knee until a roadside sign caught my attention on the way to Rushmore. After I parked and searched for some background on the site (the Indigo Girls’ cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s anthem, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” was my sole point of reference), I walked toward a small, fenced cemetery overlooking the mostly empty site. I was greeted by a guy who clearly spent the bulk of his day waiting for tourists to stumble across the site. He didn’t smile, but he was kind, asked me where I was visiting from, asked me if I’d ever been there, and asked me if I wanted to buy a hand-made dream catcher for $8. I bought two, mostly to assuage the guilt that was steadily rising in me.
As I passed through the arched gate into the cemetery, he ambled down the hill to wait in the shade for the next visitor and I fixated on the awkward cross at the top of the arch. The cemetery was long and narrow, bordered by a chain-link fence that hosted a series of scarves or strips of fabric, some quite faded and windworn, that lifted and fell with the gusts of wind that would sweep through. Left by people who’d come to honor the dead. Like other traditions of stacking rocks on gravestones or leaving flowers, they served as a reminder to me that someone else was here first and that I would not be the last. I slowly stepped toward the large marker at the center, a short obelisk awkwardly capped by a stylized urn that communicated to me what I hadn’t realized yet, that this marked the mass grave of over 300 Lakota adults and children who died there at the hands of US Army troops in 1890. I was one more under-informed tourist who stumbled onto sacred land and who would leave it behind, follow the highways that crossed the plains, the hills, and the mountains, and pay homage to four dead White men whose faces mock the Six Grandfathers whom the Lakota saw embedded in the rock’s formations.
I arrived at Mount Rushmore as the sun was starting to set — the air was clear, and the contrasts between light and dark, between purples and blues, between land and sky were dynamic, almost electric. A visitor’s center funnels tourists from the parking lot through the Avenue of Flags, a loggia of sorts whose columns are flags from the fifty states, one district, three territories, and two commonwealths that comprise the United States of America. The Avenue ends with a series of plazas that provide various vantage points and places to sit and contemplate the site. It’s a well-designed space that keeps visitors focused on the mountain, builds momentum, and inspires deep emotional engagement. My visit to Wounded Knee, though, inoculated me from the swell of patriotism that seemed to consume the people around me. I mourned the devastation to the mountain. I mourned the absence of indigenous nations among the flags. I mourned the success of monuments like this that manipulate people’s best instincts toward blind patriotism.
At various times over the years, I’ve heard people call for the removal of presidential faces from Tunkasila Sakpe Paha and closing the visitor’s center. I appreciate the intention, but, like “decolonizing Thanksgiving,” it’s a symbolic gesture whose impact or emptiness can only be measured according to the personal transformations that produce it. It’s a cosmetic makeover that ignores questions of foundational and structural integrity, questions that can only be pursued and resolved when people make discrete choices to reject harmful narratives, to deconstruct the assumptions they’ve inherited, and to design a path forward. It’s not just decolonizing — it’s deconstructing and reconstructing how we understand ourselves, others, and the world we share. How, then, might we start to deconstruct and reconstruct Thanksgiving?
First, return to Lincoln’s original impetus for instituting a national observance. With fellow citizens quite literally and brutally tearing each other apart, the common ground Lincoln identified was bordered by the all-consuming grief that emerged from “our national perverseness and disobedience,” the desperate need for healing, and a common vision of “peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.” Today, Seward’s words are startlingly familiar, aren’t they?
Second, eschew the harmful narrative. Just stop talking about Pilgrims and Indians. Stop imitating a feast that never happened. Stop. Just. Stop.
Third, lean into gratitude. Gratitude is an essential human response that we’ve used to repair injuries, to relieve doubts, to inspire joy, to revel in the sacred, and to celebrate human relationships for as long as we’ve been a distinct species, but it doesn’t just happen. It emerges when we develop a vocabulary for recognizing and responding to the people, the environments, the resources, and the experiences that shape us, and it summons the best of ourselves to the surface. I’ve often turned to Anne Lamott to remind myself what it means to be thankful. In Help, Thanks, Wow, she writes:
Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and in the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back…
You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too. Once you learn how to do that, then you can bear someone who is unbearable. My general-purpose go-to mystic Rumi said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” and bearing the barely bearable is one of the best.