Scratching the Surface of Thanksgiving as Post-Colonial Settlers

Nov 20, 2022

Thanksgiving, in the USA, is a Fall holiday we grew up celebrating every year in primary school with coloring activities and reenactments presented to a larger group of giddy parents and proud educators. We’d color in outlines of headbands and feathers and glue or pin the feathers all over our uniquely colored art as part of costume wear. We read and listened to stories about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sharing meals back in the pilgrimage years, which was far before our independence from the Brits. Then we go on to secondary and high school reading about more elaborate stories, influencers of the time, and strong, prominent characters that uphold the happy story of communion and celebration of the two groups of people with a celebratory feast. It wasn’t until the first few years of my undergrad studies that I learned just some of the realities of the events that occurred during this annual celebratory day.

As a grown adult, the unknowing of truth in history is totally on me. I never felt the need or was encouraged to learn more about my favorite holiday of the year. The information is ready and available, as is information about every single topic you can possibly think of. But, I also blame this level of unawareness on our education system. 

Our education system has 12 years, from 6-18 years of age, to teach us the truth in even the slightest, most minuscule ways. But instead, they spent 12 years of my, and everyone’s, education beating around the bush of truth. “Our education system is outdated” would be an extreme understatement. Yes, it is outdated and it flat-out omits the truth that shines light on how we are faulty, leaving no wiggle room for growth as a nation. Some would say, it’s all a lie, misrepresentation at its finest.

I grew up in California. Now if you’re not from the US, you wouldn’t come to imagine that where you live within the country matters greatly when it comes to what you are exposed to in the K-12 education system. Or maybe it’s the same where you are. Here, every state is its own entity and we have the power to vote and choose our own laws. So our experiences growing up may differ greatly from state to state. Things like taxes, legalities like which drugs are legal or what actions are a cause for arrest, and what we are taught in schools, like the contents within each public and private school textbook, are all up for debate. I won’t go into detail about what some states still (it’s 2022) teach their students about nondebatable topics like slavery because it’s absolutely outrageous and I don’t want to cause a riot at this very moment. I just want to talk about Thanksgiving because, well, it’s freakin important!

Every year, the average American gathers with their family, sometimes extended sometimes not, and cooks a variety of dishes in potluck style to give thanks and honor the great tradition of Thanksgiving. If you’re religious, you go about the table giving thanks to a higher power, if you’re not you dig in when the food is ready and perfectly displayed on the main dining table of whomever’s house you are celebrating in. The meals are a mix of the same dishes: turkey (funfact- turkeys have absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Thanksgiving. It started as a consumerism tactic, hence Christmas, Easter bunny, etc.), stuffing, roasted ham, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, green beans, mashed potatoes & gravy, biscuits, and whatever other delicious side or dessert you can think of; mac & cheese, cheesecake, other veggies, chicken, cornbread, CARB OVERLOAD. It’s the best. And the worst. 

Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday because it was the one holiday the food was astonishingly delicious and our family was all together. It’s still my favorite gathering because it brings the family together, and I’m a big fan of that aspect. Unlike Christmas or Easter, the food at Thanksgiving was endless. There was never a shortage of options, amounts, and deliciousness to go around. And the next day, there were always leftovers. A child’s holy grail. However, now that I’m older, have found a little more of my footing in deciding what I choose to be for and what I choose to be against, I’ve come to learn the suffering, ignorance, and blatant massacre of truth that has come to be known as Thanksgiving, to everyone. 

It sometimes sucks to be the Debby downer of a time of celebration, but with knowledge comes responsibility and with responsibility, we understand how heavy our decisions weigh in life. If we don’t understand then we got work to do. Choosing to be ignorant of the reality we are well aware of, just for the sake of not being inconvenienced is not a quality I am proud to own. I know this because this was me for a lot of things for a long time. Things like buying unsustainable products, eating food that was produced using cruelty, and maybe tossing a napkin on the floor when I couldn’t find a bin and had no pockets on me. Yes, I’ve done that before. Long ago, of course, but you best believe I looked to my surroundings to make sure no one was watching. We all know why. It’s the same reason we might lie about peeing in the pool or beach, it’s unclean and there are just better options out there that don’t harm others in the process. I don’t want to preach that we must be perfect all the time and damn you if you do anything imperfectly, but I do want to iterate that we are better than how we behave sometimes and doing what we can to be the better version of ourselves matters. Maybe you’re not scolded for tossing that napkin on the floor because no one was around but that napkin’s life doesn’t end there where you dropped it. It has a journey and within that journey, it comes in contact, impacts or influences others, lands somewhere you might not even be aware of, and continues its journey until it’s fully decomposed- if that. You are aware that it doesn’t belong on that ground, and that should be enough to stop you, but it isn’t always enough. We are a flawed species.  

For Thanksgiving, we are conditioned to believe that we are celebrating Native Americans or at least the positive influence they had on the pilgrims. 

Actually, for Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, not a celebration. 

Thanksgiving isn’t a day to give thanks and celebrate, it’s a day to mourn the unjust massacre of Indigenous ancestors. Something that has continued to occur throughout history. I’m aware that I’m not a Native American and I most certainly do not have the authority or deep-rooted knowledge to teach you about Thanksgiving, but I do have the authority to learn. And so do you. 

Why do we celebrate and cheers on a day that an entire group of people, an entire community, were massacred and later stripped from their heritage and culture for the name of… what? America? Assimilation? And a bigger question is why don’t we ever question or challenge the historical roots of events that we’re taught to hold so dear to us? 

As a Mexican American, I understand the importance of knowing, being in tune with, and understanding your heritage and culture. I’m not fully in tune with mine, I’ll admit. I am assimilated with American culture and fall under a small niche of first-generation Americans whose home life differs greatly from the outside “American” life or traditions. I don’t speak English when I’m at home, I didn’t grow up eating chicken or turkey or whatever Americans eat for Christmas, I grew up eating tamales, and sipping on hot and thick champurrado (a maize-based hot chocolate drink) that my mom masters every year. I’m living a hyphenated lifestyle. Going to Mexican or Latin American grocery stores, shopping for spices with Spanish names from Latin-owned companies. Still, although I’m not a perfect American nor a perfect Mexican, understanding who I am, where I come from, and where I want to go and take with me is vital to my development. My person and my sense of self. 

I can’t claim that Native Americans don’t have that, but I’m also not blind to history and understand that this entire ethnic group has been horrifyingly stripped of their way of life throughout American history, a foundation we proudly practice. It started with the pilgrims, maybe, but it definitely did not end there. It still hasn’t ended. We still use Native American mascots in our public schools, professional baseball league teams, Halloween costumes, and more without even knowing they are sacred symbols in indigenous culture and without understanding their true significance and origin. 

This year, I hope to produce texts that spring up conversations about this topic. Being a Debby downer in a time of celebration isn’t always the role I want to play. So, I too, need to take a step back and analyze how best to bring up these controversially perceived topics, even though there is nothing controversial about them. 

Supporting Indigenous people, wherever we go or whatever we celebrate is essential to uplifting communities who still suffer from colonialism. Unlike me, who is someone that is able to be in this country because of colonialism, therefore benefit from the system that stripped and massacred the Indigenous people of this land, not everyone lives with these privileges. Even today, in 2022, Indigenous people all over the world continue to suffer at the hands of colonialism and post-colonialism or settler behavior. I wish to continue to unpack Thanksgiving in the future, touching upon the connection to Turkeys and so much more. How did we come about doing what we are taught to do, why, and whose agenda are we fulfilling? 

Whose agenda am I living? 

What can we do? Educate others, bring these topics into awareness, and facilitate discussions with family and friends to foster growth and understanding. Maybe Thanksgiving remains a time to come together and celebrate family and give thanks. Choosing the context of your gathering is a power we need to exercise more. You have the power to choose and be, don’t let it go to waste.

Author

Author

Natalie Amezcua

Natalie (she/her/hers) is a humane educator and solutionary writer living in Los Angeles.

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Natalie is the author of sonatsays – blog. She is a solutionary thinker, dog mom, writer, and advocate for animal protection, environmental conservation, and human rights. Natalie has recently moved to her hometown of Los Angeles after living in Asia for several years to focus on her studies.

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