Feature image photo by krisanapong detraphiphat via Getty Images
When you think about it, the traditional Thanksgiving myth is kind of genius in the way all good propaganda is because the details of settler colonialism are — well, for most people — a hard sell. Kids, especially, immediately see the terrors and injustices that are inherent in the colonial project, even if they don’t fully understand what settler colonialism is. So, they made some shit up, not just to put everyone’s thoughts at ease, but also to prove that the original intentions of the pilgrims who conquered Plymouth and established Plymouth Plantation were pure, that the start of the U.S. was pure. They piled lie on top of lie on top of lie to make it more difficult to untangle the truths about those pilgrims, and in turn, the truths about the founding of the U.S. At this point, there are so many falsehoods and exaggerations to dispel, it feels like that would take a companion article to this one, but let’s nail down some basic facts, shall we? (Disclaimer: There’s a lot of nuance missing here because, as I said, we can’t get into every detail, but this is a primer.)
The pilgrims didn’t come to the land that would eventually become New England seeking religious and personal freedom. The pilgrims we’ve been brainwashed to revere came here after unsuccessfully trying to rebuild their lives in the Netherlands after being kicked out of England because they were religious freaks who didn’t meld well with English culture of the time. They came here, simply, as colonialists looking to reclaim the financial glory they once had in England and to become English citizens again on land that they viewed as theirs for the taking. And they certainly weren’t the first ones to try to “take advantage” of the money-making opportunities here on this land — for instance, the Virginia Company had been doing just that in Jamestown since 1606. Originally chartered to land in Jamestown, the sailors of the Mayflower either sailed too far north by accident or were bribed to do so by the pilgrims aboard and hit Plymouth in November 1620.
The story of the pilgrims arriving that day in November 1620 is taught in American classrooms as some kind of “first-contact” episode. We’re told that this is where the story of the United States of America began. But the truth is, the story of the United States of America began almost 100 years earlier because that’s how long Europeans had been traveling back and forth from Europe to North America. The Wampanoag people and other Nations on the coast of what would become New England, who are part of the Thanksgiving myth, were already very familiar with European settlers, had died in great numbers from disease because of them, learned English from them, and some had even traveled to Europe and back with them. But it’s true that this arrival is the start of genocide and more devastation for the Indigenous Nations of that area and everywhere else in North America.
There, of course, was a meal, but that’s because there were always meals. Europeans generally always had some meal at the end of the harvest season to reflect on the season and give thanks for the bounty. Plus, whenever European settlers entered into alliances with the Nations they encountered, there was always a “breaking of bread” to cement that alliance. The Wampanoag people entered into an alliance with the pilgrims because their population was decimated by (European) disease, and they needed protection from other Nations. It wasn’t because they were welcoming colonialism on their land. They just wanted to survive. Much like all of the other European-Indigenous alliances made throughout the “New World,” though, this one between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims didn’t last very long and culminated in one of the bloodiest battles in North American history, King Philip’s War.
You might be wondering now where the myth started. Let’s fast forward a hundred years, but we’ll stay in Plymouth. A lot changed in that century between King Philip’s War and the Plymouth of the late 1700s. Specifically, the pilgrims were losing their grip on the cultural and political domination they once had. (I know, I can’t believe pilgrims dominated anything, either.) And because settler colonialism is a project undertaken by people who really believe they deserve whatever the fuck they want, the pilgrims just couldn’t sit down and take that. Word spread about that initial meal between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims being the “first Thanksgiving” and the myth took off. The pilgrims never regained domination but the myth took off so hard that it made it to the ears of everyone’s favorite president (not mine because I hate all American presidents), Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, after a few years of Lincoln’s government absolutely torturing and tearing through the people of the Dakota-Sioux Nation, ol’ log cabin boy himself declared the last Thursday of November as “Thanksgiving.” And obviously, we never stopped celebrating.
Personally, I never liked Thanksgiving because it felt like a boring version of Christmas. As I’ve gotten older, I still don’t like Thanksgiving, but I definitely treat it with more respect now. Obviously not because I think it’s good, but because I understand the U.S. as an ongoing — yes, still ongoing! — settler colonial project and Thanksgiving is representative of the genocide, oppression, pain, and suffering that accompanies that reality.
For me as both a person living in the world and as a teacher, it’s important that I tell the truth about everything I’m involved in, including the project of this place. The curriculum of my Literature class focuses on the voices of Indigenous and Black people who have been forced to survive this project against impossible odds. Since the very first contact with European colonialists, Indigenous people in North America have resisted the settler colonial project and continue to. I figured I’d bring that to the selections I’ve made for this list. So, what you’ll find here is not just people writing about the ins and outs of what makes Thanksgiving the bullshit holiday that it is, but also people just writing about their cultures, about being who they are, about how they survive, what makes them keep fighting, and what gives them hope for the future. I hope you’ll take some time during this long weekend to read and reflect on their words and experiences.
“Here’s what we can all do this Thanksgiving: Anything else.” – Tommy Orange
As I said, I didn’t want to just feature authors writing on why Thanksgiving is bad because a) I think we’ve established that and b) I think that to truly challenge the project of settler colonialism, we need to give space for people to just tell their stories about themselves. But I do think these short pieces addressing the authors’ feelings about the holiday and so many other aspects of what it means to be Indigenous in the U.S. are an important place to start since that’s what we’re all here discussing in the first place.
In an op-ed for the L.A. Times, Tommy Orange, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations, discusses what Thanksgiving meant to him when he was growing up, the inaccuracies for the Thanksgiving myth, and the effect it has had on his experiences as an Indigenous person and on our understanding of history. Orange’s Prologue to his novel, There, There, addresses the ways Indigenous people have been portrayed throughout history and what it means to be Indigenous in the face of great persecution and destruction.
Tommy Pico, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, takes a different route in this short piece on LitHub. He doesn’t get directly into historical detail, but instead offers a response to a question he, unfortunately, gets asked a lot: “Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?”
The way that Elissa Washuta, of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, weaves cultural criticism and personal narrative always hits me so hard. In this piece on Electric Literature, she explains why that Wednesday Addams clip y’all are always posting around Thanksgiving time isn’t as revolutionary as you think it is. Washuta writes, in another piece in The Offing, about how Indigenous people survive despite the fact that they’re now living in a post-apocalyptic world.
“If you want to know America—if you want to see it for what it was and what it is—you need to look at Indian history and at the Indian present.” – David Treuer
David Treuer, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, is not the most radical writer on this reading list, but I do think his work is extremely important in dispelling some of the beliefs people have about Indigenous people in the U.S. and about Native American life here. His book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, was widely received and praised for its depth and breadth. I also find it to be an important companion text to a lot of the materials I teach and assign to my students.
Two of his pieces published in Harper’s Bazaar offer us another way to consider how we’ve learned the history of this nation and to reconfigure what we think we know about the experiences of growing up on a reservation. In “2020 Vision,” an excerpt from his book, Treuer writes on his feelings regarding the Wounded Knee Massacre and argues that we must be willing to face the past in order to construct a meaningful (and freer!) future. In “Portrait of the Coyote as a Young Man,” Treuer takes us to his adolescence on the Leech Lake Reservation and the small town outside of it, where his Austrian immigrant dad wants him to prepare to have a bar mitzvah.
Author’s note: If you’re going to read Treuer’s book, I highly recommend pairing it with Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance and/or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
“…in Indigenous ways of knowing, we say that we know a thing when we know it not only with our physical senses, with our intellect, but also when we engage our intuitive ways of knowing — of emotional knowledge and spiritual knowledge.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
I can’t keep myself away from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. I once referred to the way I’m constantly going back to it as “micro-dosing Kimmerer” and I stand by that. I know I can’t just suggest that you go read the entire book right now, but I do think it’s important people interact with Kimmerer’s work in some way, because all of the work she does challenges the Western perception and treatment of the natural world. Her work encourages us to not only be respectful toward but also be in community with nature and all of the gifts it has to offer us. That is entirely different from how non-Indigenous people are taught to interact with the world as rulers who must destroy and exploit every resource we have. For this long weekend, I recommend you at least check out her wonderful interview on On Being and revel in the beauty and brilliance of her relationship with plants.
“I call Strawberry Land, Strawberry Land because it feigns authorial distance. It paints a picture. It transports us somewhere else. Don’t you want to go somewhere else?” – Autumn Fourkiller
I’m a big fan of Autumn Fourkiller’s work here on Autostraddle, and I also love her newsletter Dream Interpretation for Dummies. In this piece on Scalawag, Fourkiller, a member of the Cherokee Nation, writes about her tenuous relationship with her father, what it means to have to grieve his early death, and about how his death is connected to the history of the land where she grew up and he lived. It’s a tough read, but one that I think shows the realities of Indigenous life in the U.S. and serves as a good reminder of the ways our present is directly shaped and created by the past.
“I am not a hopeless illustration, something for non-Natives to witness. This world is larger for us in it, because we saw things the white settlers didn’t…” – Terese Marie Mailhot
There’s no question that Terese Marie Mailhot’s work is changing the way people understand the experiences of Indigenous women and women who suffer from mental illness. She is from the Nlaka’pamux-Salish Indigenous First Nations people of Canada. Her memoir in essays, Heart Berries, blasted onto the literary scene, and to be honest, I feel like it never really relinquished its grip. It’s a little book but it packs such a powerful punch. Mailhot’s writing is explosive in the best ways, and oftentimes, you can’t possibly predict where her essays are going to end up. Most importantly, though, she’s not afraid to speak the truth in the face of what seems like insurmountable oppression.
When I was thinking about what to include on this list, two of her essays really stuck out to me because of how compelling they are and because they each highlight unique and important aspects of what life is like for Indigenous women. For Pacific Standard, Mailhot writes about the ways in which the stories her mother passed down to her have helped her survive and resist the racism she’s encountered throughout her life. In Mother Jones, she takes aim at the ways in white people use the stories that Indigenous people share to either “help” them, harm them, or try to portray Native Americans and First Nations people as tragic figures devoid of joy and happiness.
“My task is a formidable one: I ask you to set aside a number of basic approaches that you have been using, and probably will continue to use, and instead, to approach language from the Pueblo perspective, one that embraces the whole of creation and the whole of history and time.” – Leslie Marmon Silko
I couldn’t make this list without including famous Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko on it. Silko — along with her contemporaries N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and nila northSun, to name a few — was part of the first wave of writers in the “Native American [literary] Renaissance” of the later half of the 20th century. Her novel, Ceremony, completely changed my life as a reader. She taught me new ways of seeing and understanding storytelling, she showed me the ways that boundaries in narrative can be twisted and broken down, and she showed me that oral traditions can, in fact, be replicated for the page. I’ve used Ceremony as an anchor text in my class many times over the years, and I love to watch my students struggle with it (in a good way!) as I did when I first read it.
This essay she wrote on the differences between Laguna Pueblo storytelling and traditional Western narrative conventions is, in my opinion, a great introduction to the project of all of Silko’s work. If you couldn’t tell from the list so far, I think the most important thing we can do to help destroy the concept of white supremacy is challenge it in every single way that we can. Silko’s refusal to adhere to Western literary traditions is a good example of what I mean by this and one of the first people I saw doing this in the style and form of her writing.
“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.”
– Joy Harjo
This will always be an incomplete list no matter what I do, but it would be inexcusably incomplete if I didn’t include the works of Louise Erdrich and Joy Harjo.
Erdrich, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, is a critically-acclaimed novelist who has won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for some of her book-length works. I’m a huge fan of Erdrich’s writing, and historically, my students have been, as well. They often describe her work as “lush” and “rhythmic,” which I’m inclined to agree with. And they’ve often said that her work has helped them wrap their heads around the joys and pains that come with growing up Indigenous in the U.S. I always tell people to read her longer works (particularly Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House), but her short fiction is also incredible. I’d suggest starting with “The Stone” and “The Flower,” and then keep reading from there.
Harjo, the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate and a member of the Muscogee Nation, seems to write banger after banger after banger. Harjo’s work does so much more than just give us a glimpse of her experiences. It expands the way we understand how language works, it fights against our preconceived notions of what Native American life must be like, stays connected to the traditions she was raised with, and never stops reminding us of the beauty of the world around us. There are so many great poems of hers to read, but for this particular weekend, you should read “Perhaps The World Ends Here” and “An American Sunrise.”