How to Support Indigenous People on Thanksgiving

Here are some ideas for what to do on Thanksgiving instead of showing your gratitude for colonizers.

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Nov 20 2018, 8:23pm

Tana Teel via Stocksy

If you went to American public school, it’s likely you were taught a very sweet, incorrect version of the way this country came to be. You learned the little rhyme, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” You learned he “discovered” America, and later, after a successful harvest, you learned the pilgrims of Plymouth kindly invited local Indigenous people to a bountiful, joyful feast—turkey, legumes, and all.

Some years later, the story started to sound a little off: How can you discover a place where people already live? Why would Indigenous people willingly sit down with the very people that were massacring them and condemning them to slavery in England? The truth of Thanksgiving is disputed, but we do know the way it came to be is certainly more complex than a peaceful dinner between colonizers and the colonized. As the rest of America realizes far too late what indigenous people have known since white people first stepped foot on the East Coast—hence articles like “Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong” appearing in The New York Times only last year—the celebration of Thanksgiving can feel off at best and sadistic at worst.

While there’s no harm in taking the time to be grateful for your loved ones, here’s what you can do instead of extending that thanks to pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, or any other colonizers.

  1. Find out which tribe(s) are indigenous to your area, and what they’ve endured so that you could live there. Online maps like Native Land and this one on Native Languages can help. Once you know whose land you live on, read up on the history of that tribe as written by them to get the full picture of where you live, and extend your thanks and appreciation, either in words or money, to said tribe.
  2. As you remember the Wampanoag people, who allegedly sat down to feast with pilgrims in the early 1600s, understand that not all Indigenous people are the same. Many prefer to refer to themselves not as “Native American” or “Indigenous,” but specifically by their tribe’s name. Each tribe has its own set of traditions, practices, and beliefs. To learn more about the nuances and designations that Indigenous people use to refer to themselves, read this.
  3. Thanksgiving preparation can take a lot of time. Instead of interpreting this as making the most time-consuming, extravagant recipes you can find, spend more effort reading about the history of the country as a whole as told by indigenous people. Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution by Oren Lyons is a good place to start. If your histories of North America have all come from white men, you’re not getting the full picture.
  4. Your knowledge and support are nice, but put your money where your mouth is, if you have the means. Instead of spending money on a new outfit to impress your family or an expensive bakery dessert, allocate some of that money to local organizations like the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) or national ones like The American Indian College Fund, anything helps. You can find a list of organizations catering to Indigenous people here.
  5. Consume, and more importantly purchase, art, books, and goods by Indigenous people. Ask yourself which Thanksgiving dinner ingredients you can get from indigenous sources, then use this list of Native-owned businesses to find them. Instead of doing the Black Friday thing, gift a book or piece of art by an indigenous author to a loved one to show them your appreciation. I recommend Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women by Wilma Mankiller and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. You can find a list of great books by indigenous people here and recommendations from the First Nations Development Institute here. You can buy Indigenous art online at websites like Shumakolowa.
  6. From putting the first man on the moon to fighting for our environment, we have infinite reasons to be thankful for indigenous women. Show your gratitude towards them this Thanksgiving by donating to organizations that stand up for them, like the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. (According to the Indian Law Resource Center, “More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than one in two have experienced sexual violence.”)
  7. Like any occasion where you’re surrounded by your extended family, Thanksgiving dinner can be contentious. Spare yourself from your nosy uncle asking about your relationship status or your grandma not-so-kindly commenting on your new piercing by filling the conversation with the things you’ve learned about history from indigenous authors and discussing indigenous organizations to support.
  8. Beyond the dinner table, take Thanksgiving Day to raise awareness about issues affecting indigenous communities. Find out if there is any legislation in progress in your area that could hurt or help local Indigenous people. How can you employ social media or your professional and social networks to help? Trust that people in food comas will be scrolling through their feeds—what should they know?
  9. Some reservations have volunteer opportunities, like that of the Navajo Nation. If you can convince your family to forego their usual celebration to volunteer, go ahead! If not, it might be a good suggestion to bring up for another day while your family and friends are all in one place. Reach out to your nearest reservation to see if your help is needed and welcomed. This is a good opportunity for those unable to support indigenous communities monetarily.
  10. This Thanksgiving, while you’re surrounded by friends and family, (unless you’re boycotting the entire holiday, in which case, kudos!), implore them to do some or all of the things on this list.
  11. Introduce new traditions to your Thanksgiving celebration that recognize and/or honor Indigenous people and what the U.S. has taken from them. In addition to charades or football, collectively take a moment to discuss the actual history of this country, read an excerpt from a book by an Indigenous person after grace, or ask everyone to come with a donation within their means for an indigenous organization, along with pumpkin pies. As you show your gratitude for your loved ones this Thanksgiving, make an effort to pay your respects to Indigenous people too, who've endured so much at the hands of the country we call home.