Tell The Truth: “Black Lives Matter” and “Happy Thanksgiving” Are Contradictory Statements
There are two commonly cited “origin stories” of the “First Thanksgiving,” and both make it pretty clear: this is a colonialist white supremacist holiday.
The first origin story goes: In 1621 The Wampanoag tribe made the very first treaty between native people and colonists- pilgrims- that basically established that neither side would “do harm” to the other. This peace treaty is the reason some of the Wampanoag tribe joined in on a Pilgrim feast. Most of us learn something like this, but often sugar coated in a narrative of “eternal friendship” between native people and settlers. Which is far from the truth. We can’t forget that 5 years before this “first meal,” in 1616, European traders arrived on Wampanoag land. They brought disease- which killed about two thirds of the Wampanoag population- and they brought guns, which put the Wampanoag at a serious disadvantage in conflict. And there was a lot of conflict- violent combat that often ended in the slaughter and massacre of native people. When you take all of that into consideration, it’s pretty clear that this “First Thanksgiving” was not a “best friends forever” meal. It was more of a “native people backed into a corner and forced into a peace treaty,” land deal meal. A celebration of violent, successful colonization.
The second origin story goes: In 1637, something like seven hundred Pequot people gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists then surrounded their village, set it on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape. The next day, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a feast in celebration, and the governor, John Winthrop, declared it a “Day of Thanksgiving.” Thanksgivings like these happened everywhere when there were successful massacres of native people. At one such celebration in Manhattan, settlers celebrated Thanksgiving by kicking the heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls.
Any way you put it, Thanksgiving is a pretty horrific “celebration.” And these were not isolated incidents; the foundation of this country was built on slaughtering, torturing and systemically and forcibly removing Indigenous people from their land.
And yet, we still celebrate Thanksgiving. I’ve had the “But Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays” conversation about a million times. People are typically surprised that they could have such fond memories and such a deep connection to such a horrific “holiday.” But that’s how this oppression stuff works.
The United States is an imperialist colonialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy. All of these systems of oppression work together. It is not a mistake that capitalism pauses for colonialist white supremacist holidays. It’s not a mistake that some rare time off from a capitalist existence- a day or two where your life is not defined by productivity in the workplace, where you may be able to finally spend cherished time with loved ones- happens on a colonialist white supremacist holiday. It is not a mistake that all of these good feelings are orchestrated on Thanksgiving.
You’re supposed to feel good on this “holiday-“ more so than on other days. Your feeling good ensures that the celebration continues. Your nostalgia reinforces and perpetuates these systems of oppression. Colonialism and white supremacy aren’t just blatant, overt hatred. They’re nostalgic. They sometimes feel good- for oppressors, but also even for oppressed groups. What better way to subjugate people than by making them instrumental in their own oppression?
Nostalgia is one of the key mechanisms of colonialism and white supremacy. It’s why people in the south still sing “Hotty Toddy,” still fly confederate flags and worship confederate monuments. It reminds them of family, community and abundance- the good old days. It’s why Thanksgiving is one of your favorite holidays. Colonialism and white supremacy are nostalgic.
In order to move toward equity and justice, we have to recalibrate. We have to reevaluate and ask ourselves: What should we fear? What should we celebrate? What is honorable? What is not?
So yes- you may have time off this week. Breathe. You have always been more than what you produce. You have always been enough. Yes, you may have time with family this week. Be sure to remind them that they are enough, too. Remind each other that your life and your love is abundant.
And yes- you may have a meal this Thursday because that’s what you’ve always done. But maybe, this year, you start a conversation. Maybe this year you discuss how “Black Lives Matter” and “Happy Thanksgiving” are actually contradictory statements. Maybe you talk to your family about stolen land, “The Indian Termination Policy” and the “Indian Relocation Act.” Maybe you explain how violence against indigenous people was instrumental to the expansion of slavery- how there was no profiting off of enslaved Black (and native) people working the fields unless said fields were stolen from indigenous people by systematically killing and removing them from the land.
Perhaps you discuss how troubling it is to feast on a day that upholds false narratives of friendship between native people and settler-colonialists, especially considering that settler-colonialists often enacted violence on native people by disrupting their food systems and food sources. Perhaps you use the example of settlers slaughtering 60 million buffalo to starve plains Indians into submission.
Knowing that some native people believe that there is no way to “salvage” or “reclaim” this “holiday,” maybe you decide to do something differently today: A land acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of the over 5 million native people that still live in this country. A donation of time/energy/resources to your local Indian Center, or if you live near a reservation, figuring out how you can be supportive there. An inquiry into how you can begin to decolonize your mind, body and life.
Maybe you don’t do a Thanksgiving at all. Maybe that’s what it takes to start chipping away at this nostalgia. To move toward where and who we want to be. As a country. As a community. As human beings. Maybe it will feel even better than the other thing- even if it’s a little uncomfortable at first.
And maybe it won’t be so bad after all- just sitting with loved ones and telling the truth.
Alternatives to saying “Happy Thanksgiving:”
- To loved ones: “I love you! I’ve missed you! I cherish you! So good to see you!”
- To random people in the grocery store: “I appreciate you! Have a wonderful day! I hope you get some rest and time off soon!”
- To relatives that need it: “Hello! Happy to be here. So let’s talk about Thanksgiving (Imperialism/Colonialism/Capitalism/White Supremacy/Patriarchy)”
- In general: “Land. Back.”
- Also a good option: Nothing :)