Hello, friends. I’ve got a longer reflection this week, and I hope you’ll hang in there for it.
For the past several years, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s become impossible for me to ignore how inextricably it’s linked with the genocide of indigenous people and the continuing erasure of them. It’s become impossible for me to write a newsletter about gratitude this time of year instead of acknowledging that gratitude without grief is hollow.
Thanksgiving is also a National Day of Mourning for Indigenous Peoples. Every year, thousands of people gather at Plymouth Rock.
According to the United American Indians of New England: “We are mourning our ancestors and the genocide of our peoples and the theft of our lands” and participants “honor Indigenous ancestors and Native resilience.” Participants fast and pray and bear witness. They bear witness to their own survival and to the Thanksgiving myth.
What is the Thanksgiving myth? The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.
If you want to read more about why this story is a myth, I suggest reading here or here. The punchline is that using a shared dinner as a symbol for colonialism really has it backward. No question about it, Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the English at Plymouth and wanted an alliance with them. But it’s not because he was innately friendly. It’s because his people have been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin sees the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels. That’s not the stuff of Thanksgiving pageants. The Thanksgiving myth doesn’t address the deterioration of this relationship culminating in one of the most horrific colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip’s War, and also doesn’t address Wampanoag survival and adaptation over the centuries, which is why they’re still here, despite the odds.
So, what do we do with these truths? In my own Christian tradition, we might use the word “repent,” which means to recognize harm and wrongdoing and then to go another way. Other things we might talk about are reparations, justice, healing. But what does this look like?
Many things occur to me, and you probably know all of them. You can give money to indigenous-run organizations that serve indigenous people. You can become politically active. You can start conversations with people in your circle that you’re scared to start conversations with. You can cry and mourn, which is a spiritual practice. If you’re in a position of leadership, you can create just systems that don’t exploit people. If you are gathering with family later this week, you can acknowledge the roots of the Thanksgiving tradition.
But I want to leave you with some instructions from Winona LaDuke, internationally acclaimed environmental activist, and a member of the Mississippi Band of the Ashininaabeg. She said,
“Spirituality is the foundation of all my political work…What we need to do is find the well-spring that keeps us going, that gives us strength and patience to keep up this struggle for a long time.”
And then she says something really beautiful— “There is a kind of industrial mythology that indigenous peoples want to ‘go back.’ It is not about going back—it is about being on your path—staying on the path that the Creator gave you instead of going over here or going over there. It is not a going-back path. It is the path of following your instructions…Because we are human, we often stray. We hope that we can correct our mistakes through prayer or through our community.”
What is your path? And what community and spiritual practices can help you stay on it? It’s hard to tell what your path is sometimes in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s hard to hear our own voices. But if you listen, you probably know. Maybe your path is to quit your job. Or stay. Maybe it’s to delete all the social media apps from your phone, or maybe it’s to launch a social media campaign! Maybe it’s to start being outside more or set more boundaries with your time or start singing or meditating or quit drinking. And those steps will lead to the next steps, and maybe some of them will get you and all of us closer to justice and truth.
Any activism or truth-telling must come from a grounded place of love, of humility, which moves us from shame to right action. And the place to start is within ourselves.
Happy Truthsgiving, friends.