Erin Gwydir headshot

When you think about Thanksgiving, what comes to mind? The amazing food? Family and friends getting tipsy off sangria and oversharing? That Adele SNL skit from 2015?

Americans have been coming together and celebrating Thanksgiving since the country’s origin. Presidents have encouraged the celebration of Thanksgiving particularly after periods of national suffering such as the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Great Depression in order to encourage unity. However, as Thanksgiving became an important symbol of American patriotism, it created a complex and problematic dynamic of glorifying the history of colonization and the centuries of Native American suffering that it caused.

Yes, the story that we celebrate is a peaceful one of breaking bread despite differences and surviving despite adversity, but from the late 15th century to the 20th century, the general exchange between Europeans and Native Americans was anything but peaceful, and the original story is part of that.

The story that we know should be celebrated but in a way that does not dismiss the tragedy that Indigenous groups still carry with them today. Being American does not equate to being white, nor should American history be told in a way that glorifies and white-washes racist events.

November is Native American Heritage Month. If you and your family are going to take time to give thanks for what you have, take time to learn about the land that you inhabit and the history in its soil. The Americas were stolen from native groups, many of whom aren’t around anymore because of the cruel acts of European explorers, colonizers and American leaders such as Christopher Columbus and President Andrew Jackson. From spreading deadly disease, wars, massacres and forced assimilation practices to removal acts, racist voting policies, pop culture mockery and much more, these are the stories that Indigenous people remember.

Europeans arriving on their land is not a cause for celebration but rather a reminder of devastation and reason for mourning. That’s why if Native Americans choose to celebrate at all, it is done differently and in a way that non-Indigenous people should learn from.

On Thanksgiving, it’s all about the food, but the fourth Thursday of November has become one of the most wasteful days of the year. Not only is this extremely harmful to the environment, but it is also disrespecting the original cultivators of the food who place stress on using all parts of their food and respecting nature. According to usda.gov, the average American family wastes about 1,160 pounds of Thanksgiving food every year. The New York Times’ Priya Krishnawrites about the necessity of sustainability during Thanksgiving.

“The classic Thanksgiving ingredients, like turkey, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, were originally cultivated by Native Americans in ways that showed respect for the Earth. But the celebration has become commercialized and unmindful of the nation’s violent treatment of Native Americans," Nikki Sanchez, an Indigenous scholar and documentary filmmaker who lives on Coast Salish territory in Victoria, British Columbia, said. "Those who celebrate need to be more aware of this and take the time to appreciate their food.”

Although larger changes need to be made on a national level in the food industry, you and your family can make a difference individually by making this year a no-waste Thanksgiving by donating leftovers and reusing extra food. Thanksgiving meals should also consist of foods that celebrate your own cultures and heritage as other parts of the world should be recognized in the celebration of being American.

In the 1800s, when there was an exponential increase in immigration, “colonial ideology became the identity of what it was to be truly 'American,' and they began implementing teachings to clearly define 'Americanism' for the new immigrants,” (Sherman, New York Times). Diversifying the food that is defined as American is a solid step to embrace immigration within a country that has historically forced and encouraged assimilation to a white culture.

The education surrounding this holiday and Native American history still vastly under-serves the grim truth. Every year, I remember being shown “Charlie Brown — The Mayflower Voyagers" cartoon in elementary through middle school. That short movie was the center of education around Thanksgiving. Teachers would show it and fail to mention that the white settlers were part of a larger movement of colonization and forcefully taking stolen land. I also remember cutting out feathers to make headbands to wear on our heads as an “Indian costume.” Not only is it a mockery of traditional native American clothing, but it is also extreme cultural appropriation.

Thanksgiving is often many children’s first introduction to Native Americans, and it has become a place where harmful stereotypes are reinforced and fluffy falsehoods become the general understanding of an entire culture.

Additionally, there should be education about the Native people and the cultures that are still alive and well today. High school is the last chance for American society to holistically learn the truth instead of referring to the euphemism taught to children. However, textbooks still white-wash and ameliorate history by providing the half-truth of arguably our most popular national holiday. Did you know Squanto was sold into slavery? If not, be sure to check the links included at the bottom of this article to learn more.

If you and your family are planning on celebrating Thanksgiving, I urge you to practice it in a way that honors Native American heritage, educate yourself and those around you and respect the event you are recreating by showing respect for Indigenous groups. Linked below are a few resources I have found that will help you do this, including recipes, educational articles, ways to get involved and documentaries.

Educational articles:

Get Involved:

Recipes:

Learn who’s ancestral lands you live on:

Documentaries

  • “American Experience: We Shall Remain"
  • “500 Nations"

Erin Gwydir is a freshman at UT this year studying global studies and political science. She can be reached at efgwydir@gmail.com.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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