Lakota elder in South Dakota. Photo credit: Andrew James on Unsplash.

This Thanksgiving, in a year of revelation, must come with atonement and action for Native peoples

4 mins read

Every year, Thanksgiving comes a month after Columbus Day. Between that time, narratives of Native people recount rich cultural histories, and in some, retell the the annual superficial coverage on how America rose to power.

Scattered in constitutions, amendments and broken treaties, is the open secret that we celebrate “European settlement” and American immigration as what makes this country great, while we walk on the crushed bones and generations of civilizations that preceded.

Several years ago, in an interview with Dr. Eileen De Freece, a member of the Lenni Lenape in New Jersey and New York, spoke on how the main roads from Newark to the suburbs were carved out thousands of years before. 

“They were trading routes,” Dr. Defreece explained about Bloomfield Avenue, a thoroughfare that goes for miles through New Jersey.

“Along Bloomfield Avenue were places to buy and sell and trade . . . white people came along and covered it up.”

These highways and winding streets connect to other cities in the state. Eventually, they lead to other states. All of them are Native rather than American originals.

In fact, much of America is a mere facsimile of indigenous peoples whose hues represent the gamut of light brown to deepest hues of copper to rich soil. From the name of towns to even logos and the ways in which we do business, are stolen from Native peoples. 

Yet, every year we bury the truth of Thanksgiving under jokes of what to do with dry Thanksgiving turkey, without explaining or knowing that eating turkey is a Native cultural tradition. Turkey is sacred, and is used in many rituals. The poultry’s feathers were used on arrows, in headdresses and clothing. Their bones were used for tools and in ritual ceremonies. But as Lupe Fiasco eloquently stated in his song “Around my way [Freedom Ain’t Free],” Native culture has been “boiled down to giving you Pokeno.” Damn, in my Kendrick Lamar voice.

| Watch: We fought back: The story of the Lenni Lenape of New Jersey and New York 

Lakota Native elder with feathers similar to turkeys to show the sacred bird. Photo credit: Andew James in Unsplash.

The story of the Lenni Lenape is one of thousands of narratives of conquests. Even in recent years, it has come to light of the battle of who is Native versus who is not—much of it based on skin tone. While Black Natives are being purged from Native registries, those who are white are left unchecked. Though there is a documented history of whites paying for Native identity generations before, Blacks bear less legitimacy and also remain at the margins of Native-ness.

While there is much debate on what constitutes “Native,” this is one of the glaring symptoms of a general, false narrative. In short, it is the history of the Americas articulated through the lens of the descendants of European settlers who created whiteness as a critical part of conquest. Only to fold it into an annual day that stands on a sanitized history to protect whiteness and the imbalance of power.

The more I come into my understanding of Thanksgiving, the more I know that America is not great. Perhaps, a work in much needed progress. Still, that does not take away from how incredible peoples and cultures emerged within the nation. 

Nonetheless, the general, false narrative of the holiday practices a brutal erasure that has grave consequences. One of the most vivid results bubbled up this year with the multiple waves of protests against the unavoidable recognition of inequities, injustices and ignorance that fuel a broken society.

| Read: Cherokee nation stores heirloom seeds in Svalbard vault

Photos of Native peoples taken in the 1800s. Photo credit: Boston Public Library on Unsplash

For many, the false narrative is a familiar revelation. Yet, others exist in willful ignorance. Within the folds of this dichotomy is America’s profound tragedy. One who knows, another who does not want to know; but we gather every year on Thanksgiving to give “thanks.”

Of course, I understand that this is the only time of the year where most companies allot a two-day break. Of course, the vacation is not for the essential workers such as grocery store employees, gas attendants, and Walmart personnel, but those middle-class families and richer who come together to break bread in their American-ness. Added, I am clear that Thanksgiving, supposedly absent of religiosity, escapes the Christian-ish of Christmas, and the Blackness of MLK Day. Added, it is one of the few times families congregate without sanctions of being absent from their jobs. After all, it is about sharing the fall harvest when European settlers were on the brink of starving.

Yet, within that there is a thought that chills my soul. We often resign to the adage when explaining the trail of carnage in America’s history, “that’s how nations are built.” With that notion, it is through someone else’s misery and blood that we are told to give gratitude on a day thanking another group for something we actually never attained—freedom. 

If only on this day of Thanksgiving, we remove ourselves from the glamorous fantasy of the festival and embrace our toxic participation. We replay the feast or the rituals for what they are: a massive slaughter that is akin to the biblical last supper. I, too, am guilty. Forgive me.

. . . .
Lakota woman at pow wow in South Dakota. Photo credit: Andrew James

Thanksgiving festivals have done such a great job of burying the open secret that Native nations who survived are just grateful to be able to speak the truth of the past. And they must speak with so much force between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving because after that, they become invisible for the rest of the year.

But, we are in a powerful moment. Indeed, it is a quick nanosecond in this present. But, to shift the story. Even if it is a slight turn, the rippled effects will cause a magnitude of what this world needs—healing and another direction in our reimagining that is free from political posturing and insincere alignment.

To touch the ground of which we stand, to acknowledge those bones—to share space and power in an unavoidable reconstruction of a nation built on unspeakable sufferings..

More importantly, those symbolic gestures must be met with very real policy and restoration that repairs the destruction of Native civilizations and the gross dismemberment of Africans and Native Blacks afterward. Because, we simply cannot afford symbolic gestures such as speeches of apology or the “one black or brown face” rule, to change in the bones of this country must come like the bones we stand on.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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