How to celebrate Thanksgiving while debunking the myth

Seeking new meanings in Thanksgiving.

Seeking new meanings in Thanksgiving. Image: UNSPLASH/Boston Public Library

Alem Tedeneke
Media Lead, Canada, Latin America and Sustainable Development Goals, World Economic Forum
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  • As the US celebrates Thanksgiving, here are three ways to debunk the myth behind the holiday.
  • They are: tell the complex story, celebrate the vibrant Native cultures through Native American art, literature and food, and seek new meanings in Thanksgiving.

This week, in many schools in the United States, children will don headdresses made of multicoloured feathers and share a meal with classmates wearing black paper hats. It's a story told every year, passed down through the generations: local Native Americans welcomed the brave and enterprising pilgrims to a celebratory feast.

Have you read?

But that children's story is slowly being acknowledged as a myth full of historical inaccuracies. Behind the image of warmth, family and food and gratitude, for many lies a long history of violence against and oppression of Indigenous People.

Thanksgiving is a complex day. For some, it's a time to gather with family and celebrate over an elaborate meal. For others, it's a day to mourn and protest against colonialism and intentional false narratives about the relationship between Indigenous People and the early settlers.

How Thanksgiving helped create the erasure of the indigenous people

While we don't know when the fairy tale version of the holiday was created, President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863 to foster unity. He conceived it as a national day of Thanksgiving, and "Pilgrims and Indians" weren't included in the tradition until 1890. It also allowed for the idea of bloodless colonialism that birthed the country, removed from the Indian Wars and slavery.

We are Americans, we can make the holiday into anything we want it to be. We can choose to celebrate each other.

Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico

"We are Americans, we can make the holiday into anything we want it to be," said Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who in 2018 became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress. "We can choose to celebrate each other."

Changing the Thanksgiving story, analysing the myth

To rewrite the myth, first, we must recognize the harmful impact of this historical fiction.

Second, we need to stop engaging with any media that represents Indigenous People as cartoonish historical relics. It relegates Native Americans to the past and smooths out a history that should be taught with all its dimensions, and native American history is American history.

The Native Americans featured in the thanksgiving story are from the Wampanaogs tribe, and they still exist. They make up two federally recognized tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gray Head. They descend from a confederation of groups stretched across large Massachusetts areas including Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket.

It's important to remember that "American Indian" is a political identity, not a racial one, constituted by formal, still living treaties with the United States government and a long series of legal decisions.

We can tell better and truer stories with whole and complicated human beings.

Seek Thanksgiving meaning in new ways

Today, Thanksgiving is about coming together, being grateful, and remembering our ancestors. These values can still be honored while debunking the myths and learning and understanding another culture's history and current status.

It's also an opportunity to move away from the sanitized story of Thanksgiving, created in part to define "Americanism" for the new immigrants by adding new traditions, recipes and stories.

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