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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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 affects 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.
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.
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.