Decolonizing Thanksgiving

When my great, great grandmother Anna was just 16 years old, she and her sister said goodbye to their parents, their community, and their homeland, then boarded a boat in Norway destined for America.

I wonder what what she thought about on that journey across the sea at such a young age.  Was she fearful, hopeful–both?

And I also wonder–at any moment on that long, 6 week journey did she pause and wonder about the people who already called the “New World” home?

I don’t mean the other European immigrants who had similarly embarked in search of a better life, but the indigenous people of this continent. The people who already occupied the land she now planned to make her home.

This world, of course, was only new to the newcomers.

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On the long timeline of North American human history, my great-great grandmother’s arrival on this continent wasn’t all that long ago. I still have her spinning wheel; her stories of the seven waterfalls of her childhood home in Norway are still shared in our family today.

I’m a fourth generation life-long Wisconsinite. My great, great grandparents arrived here from Norway and Eastern Europe, chasing the dream of a better life that the “new world” offered. These hills looked like the home they had left behind, and so they stayed.

And a brief four generations later, I am keenly aware that I live on stolen land.

State (or national) pride will only take us so far, and what we’re left with is a tragic and violent legacy that as a collective we often choose to ignore.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I remember tracing my hand on brown construction paper each November, then affixing colorful paper “feathers” with paste to create a turkey in elementary school. I also remember cutting a strip from that same shade of brown, and affixing those paper feathers into a mock-headdress as our teacher explained the friendship between the pilgrims and the non-specific Indians of lore.

Most Americans grew up hearing a similar story (if not making similarly culturally inappropriate crafts).

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The land beneath my feet in my childhood suburban Milwaukee home was Peoria, Potawatomi, Menominee, Miami, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (or Sioux) territory. The hills where my dad grew up in the Driftless (and where my family now calls home) was the homeland of Očeti Šakówiŋ, Sauk, and Ho-Chunk. And the northern Wisconsin land that my mom (and her parents before her) grew up was that of the Menominee. 

My mom grew up in a predominately white community just across the county line from the Menominee Reservation. She has a lifelong friend to this day grieves never having learned the traditional Menominee ways.

Despite growing up on the remnant sliver of her people’s tribal land, thanks to colonization, neither her cultural traditions nor her family tongue were passed down to her.

Not because she left her homeland, but because Europeans arrived.

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And each year as Thanksgiving approaches, I think more and more of America’s true history surrounding this holiday. I sit with increasing discomfort at our table laden with food and steeped in myth, struggling with the story we have painted of the first Thanksgiving.

I feel a strong pull in two conflicted directions. The first is to find deep gratitude in this day that we devote to family each year. This is the Thanksgiving I have convinced myself we are celebrating, with our gratitude tree, homemade food, and time shared as a family.

The second pull, of course, is to acknowledge (and begin to heal) the historically accurate version of what we celebrate.

This more important tug is rooted in a need to decolonize a holiday whose traditions run deep in our cultural belief system.

If America focuses on Thanksgiving as simply a day to celebrate the people that we love (as I personally have done for most of my of adulthood), we are conveniently overlooking the bloody handprint that exists upon this day, and upon our place here in North America if we are of European decent.

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To be clear, I’m not here to take your turkey and stuffing away; rather I ask you to dig deeper than modern traditions to understand the backstory of what we celebrate. And then (when they are old enough to be ready) to share that truth with your kids.

I acknowledge that there is discomfort in sitting with these stories, in opening ourselves to the implications. I’m certain in even opening this conversation here I will make some missteps. But putting away the myth and picking up history is our responsibility–as parents, as the descendants and benefactors of colonists, as Americans.

Sure, the tidy history that we learned in elementary school (had it been factual) carries a greater appeal. But learning the truth, and peeling it back layer by layer to realize how it effects indigenous and non-native peoples to this day is crucial for deeper healing.

And sitting in our own discomfort is one small first step along this healing path.

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I have a few links to share today if you, too, are interested in decolonization, putting away the paper headdress-perpetuated stereotypes, and playing your part in acknowledging the generations of violence done to Indigenous people across this continent.

As a white person, what I have to bring to the table is to simply acknowledge that we have work to do, then digging in and beginning to educate myself and my children with facts instead of myths. From there I hand the floor to the people below who know far more than I, many of them indigenous.

I hope you will spend some time reading what they have to share, and reflecting on the true story of the America that we call home.

If you have additional resources to add to the list below, I invite you to include them in the comments. 

Thank you for stepping into this uncomfortable space with me. It’s not easy to change traditions, or to acknowledge that our own actions may cause harm. Healing generations of trauma is no quick fix, but–like so many of you–I’m ready to show up and do what I can to begin moving in that direction.

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Decolonizing Thanksgiving: a few links to get you started:

American Indians in Children’s Literature’s list of good Thanksgiving books for kids

This list includes:

 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (afflink)

Four Seasons of Corn, A Winnebago Tradition (afflink)

Thanksgiving: a Native American Story

The Native-Lands Map and (as importantly) the accompanying Teacher Guide

With Thanksgiving: a Native American View

The Future is Indigenous: Decolonizing Thanksgiving

Racial Justice Resources for Thanksgiving

Decolonizing Thanksgiving: a Toolkit for Combating Racism in Schools

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man” Indian Boarding Schools

 

Special thanks to my friend Shawn Nadeau for editing help with this post.

 

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10 thoughts on “Decolonizing Thanksgiving

  1. Alyssa says:

    For those in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes, explore wisconsinfirstnations.org
    Lots of great information, maps & videos, even field trip suggestions.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for offering your perspective. I am a European who never left her continent, so I struggle with different things (like: why did my ancestors allow hitler to take away the rights of every Jew and then transport them to an unknown fate?), but they are on many levels equally uncomfortable.
    Before I got to know Americans, I imagined North America to be one big melting pot of Europeans, former slaves and native Americans. I thought it was a bit like Latin America, where it’s often impossible to see if a person has mainly Spanish/Portugese, native American or African roots. When I visited the US I was shocked to see that various races lived in a near complete segregation from each other. The same seems to happen in increasingly in Europe, where the first foreign workers were welcomed enthusiastically in the 1960’s. Their children and grandchildren are now still considered ‘foreigners’ even when they only have European passports and only speak European languages. There are so many complicating factors and it’s often hard not to lose hope in the middle of a loud and agressive discourse. Thanks for the links! I also wonder, how do you tackle the fourth of July?

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, Elizabeth. As a homeschooler, we talk about the history of the 4th of July, what the celebration marks, and who makes the fireworks we use to celebrate our country (China), as well as the state of environmental regulations and work conditions there. It’s messy, isn’t it?

  3. Meghan says:

    Thank you so much for this post and for these incredible resources. I just checked out the Native-Lands map and was moved to tears to see what land I live on. This is knowledge I’ve never had and I am so humbled, I don’t even know what other words to describe how this feels right now. Thank you, Rachel.

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      It’s so powerful to see; to consider our own place in this timeline of displacement, isn’t it? From here I hope you did deeper, learning more about how the people who called your land home were removed from it, and where they are now. Warmly, Rachel

  4. Susie says:

    As a Irish person, I think about those Irish who left their homeland, sometimes in coffin ships and in desparation, and headed off over a never-ending sea to somewhere, beyond the waves, that might be better then what they were leaving behind. They too were forced from their homes and lands. And then I wonder how those colonised people became the colonisers of a new land. It is very complicated, isn’t it?

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      It is profoundly complicated. Because, of course, The Irish as well were the victims of aggression, oppression, and genocide, from which they fled. Our history is far from tidy. Thanks for your thoughts, Susie.

  5. Launa says:

    Thank you for this- for your wisdom as human and a homeschool mom seeking truth. I’ve felt these inner struggles and my children are now approaching an appropriate age to begin these discussions.
    But amongst all the sad and tragic history, do you have any “helper” stories to go along with the part of history? (I glanced at the list above but have not read them thoroughly). I find myself feeling quite helpless and depressed when reading about European colonization- as in “look what my ansestors have done and look where I am because of it”. I would like to be able to share something positive with my children when we are learning the truth about our country.

  6. Emma Cowan says:

    Great post Rachel. From here in New Zealand it is interesting and refreshing to read your words, i often think of you and your family (whom i only know of through your writings) and I’m grateful to hear a voice of reason and your honest and beautiful perspective on things…. so much of what we hear about your country’s politics and customs makes us shake our heads in disbelief, I’m grateful for the internet and the personal voices that shine out! We don’t have a thanksgiving tradition here, but we have much of the same work to do in decolonising and healing the wounds from our past.

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