I’m an Indigenous Woman—Thanksgiving Is a Reminder That My People Are Still Here

published Nov 25, 2020
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Two Indigenous Canadian woman sing and dance by the lake. The one lady plays on a musical drum. They are enjoying their time together.
Credit: stockstudioX | Getty Images

As an Indigenous woman, it was hard for me to accept the horrifying truth of Thanksgiving, in part because it was definitely not what I had learned in school. 

There, I had been taught about the national holiday that celebrates the harvest and the blessings from the past year, and about what most Americans generally believe is a 1621 harvest feast shared by English colonists and the Wampanoag people. I was always taught that, in 1620, when the Mayflower arrived here to what is now known as America, the Indians shared their food and homes with the pilgrims, and that they had a feast together to celebrate their new trusted alliance. I remember one Thanksgiving in elementary school, my class was tasked with making our own pilgrim outfits out of construction paper, while another class made their own “Indian costumes.” We ate lunch together to celebrate Thanksgiving break. 

I look back on that now in such awe: Why was it okay for my teachers to allow such disrespect and ignorance in their classroom? Why would they encourage it? Why would anyone create an assignment to mock my people and their trauma?

The truth is, when the Pilgrims arrived on Wampanoag land in November 1620, they did not know how to survive. They were not familiar with their environment in the slightest—and luckily, for them, the Wampanoag people took them in and taught them how to hunt, plant crops, and fish. And because in Native American cultures, it is common for our people to gather together and feast for everything from birthdays, graduation ceremonies, and even funerals, the colonists and the Wampanoag people did in fact sit together and feast with each other. For the Wampanoag and other Native peoples, doing so is one way to celebrate accomplishments, give thanks for life itself, and share one last meal on behalf of our loved ones that have passed on.

But it was not long after that feast the settlers took advantage of the Wampanoag peoples’ trust in them and used it to continuously try to overtake the tribe until the King Philip’s War in 1675. Mass murders would become the beginning of a continuous genocide against the Indigenous peoples who lived on the vast expanse of land that is now called the United States. European settlers would burn down entire tribal villages, murdering women, men and children, as well as abducting Indigenous peoples for slavery and other horrendous acts. It was only then that they would feast to celebrate their “victory,” which they called “Thanksgiving.” This horrendous pastime was not declared an official holiday until 1863, after Abraham Lincoln became president.

I began to wonder what the holiday truly represented in 2016, when I was asked to do research for a video series for Teen Vogue. The deeper I got into my homework, the deeper the pain went. At the time, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. My heart broke for my ancestors when I learned the true origin of Thanksgiving, and I vowed to myself that I would no longer celebrate the genocide of my ancestors again.  For so long I was told this peaceful story of my people and the pilgrims. I couldn’t wait to get back to school to tell my lying social studies teacher the truth. 

Imagine your way of life—your freedom to hunt, farm, and fish—all being taken from you abruptly. You’re forced to live in areas of land that are inadequate for farming and you’re not allowed to leave that area unless you were given permission by the government. If you tried to leave to go hunt for your family and were caught, you could be killed. Imagine having to rely solely on the government for food, shelter, and warmth and as time passed, the rations became less and less—that most of the meat arrived rancid, and the blankets you used were riddled with the smallpox virus. My ancestors endured this and more following the Indian Removal Act which Andrew Jackson passed in 1830. Imagine knowing that one of the first known victims of human trafficking on this land was an Indigenous girl like you: Her name was Matoaka, the daughter of Chief Powhatan. You know her as “Pocahontas.”

Making matters more painful still was the knowledge that my family has always done our best to make Thanksgiving a day of healing and togetherness, in the face of residual trauma. Waking up in my grandmother’s house almost every Thanksgiving morning, I loved the smell of the turkey. She would stay up all night cooking, and would often ask my sister and me to help her. We would stay up and learn how to cook how she cooked, listen to her stories, and laugh at her jokes. After the cooking was done late the next morning, the 13 of us that lived at my grandmother’s house at the time would gather around the table, and my grandmother would ask one of the younger kids to recite our daily prayer: “Dear Lord, thank you for this food that we are about to eat. Please bless it. Feed all the hungry, watch over us as we play, heal the sick. Amen.” 

As a child, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be celebrating on Thanksgiving; I just knew I would be surrounded by food and family, and that we would spend time saying what we were most thankful for that year. When I was young, I always said I was grateful for my family because that is what I heard the adults say. Over time, however, I realized I have so much more to be thankful for, and that family can mean so much more. 

I am thankful for my ancestors, who gave me the power of resiliency through their trauma. I am thankful they gave me a new understanding of love for the people that endured and survived through so much pain so that I could be here today. That they gave me and many others a great example of leadership to help guide us through the hard times, as well as prayers of protection for all the generations that came after them. But most importantly, I am thankful my ancestors gave their lives so the rest of us could have a powerful voice to use while taking our seat at the table. 

Now, when I gather with my family and loved ones every November, we serve our typical holiday dishes, including turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, multiple casseroles, all types of different salads, and a cake, which always represents the sweetness of life. We still go around the table to talk about what we’re thankful for. But I also make a promise each year to use my voice for empowerment and to remind others that we are still here.