How to Celebrate Thanksgiving While Acknowledging It's Problematic History


Thanksgiving is an…interesting day. Since it became a federal holiday in 1863 (thanks Lincoln) it has come to represent many things: in the beginning, a celebration of the "Christian faith in God" and the first meal between settlers and Native Americans; later, a symbol of the Union, African-American families, and New England; and today, a time for familial gatherings and gratitude.

Notice how Thanksgiving has, since its inception, overwritten its problematic roots.

The holiday fails to recognize the systematic oppression and erasure of First Nations despite its Native American-related origins. It is no surprise many Native Americans and non-Native peoples view Thanksgiving as a Day of Morning.

Despite its problems, Thanksgiving is so engrained in our culture and family traditions it can be difficult to avoid. However, there are alternatives.

If you are like me and cannot simply skip the holiday due to family, friends, or the like, there are small steps you can take on November 22 to recognize Thanksgiving for the good and the bad. Or, if you find more liberty in your schedule, you can pursue activism and/or substitute your Thanksgiving with a more peaceful holiday.

Below, I have shared Thanksgiving alternatives for you and yours.

Donate to a Native American organization

From our forefathers to present-day politicians to our current ignorant selves, Americans have perpetuated Native American institutional oppression, the likes of which have devastating effects on First Nation communities.

For instance, did you know that 28.3% of Native American households lie below the poverty level? How about the average indigenous person's annual income, which is just $37,227 compared to the nationwide average of $53,657? Or that 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetime? Or maybe you were unaware that 1 in 10 native people will die from alcohol-related deaths, which is three times the national average. These are not issues born of nothing; their roots lie in systematic oppression.

You can make a difference, though. And what better day to do it than on Thanksgiving? Educate yourself (see below) and donate to organizations that work for the betterment of native communities. Diversity Best Practices offers a great list of Native American organizations that you can donate to.

Educate yourself

For all the reasons listed above, educate yourself on the history of Native Americans. Find out why poverty levels, sexual violence, and alcohol-related deaths are so high. Despite what others may say, it has nothing to do with a lack of will power or complacency.

Once you have learned a thing or two about native peoples' history, move on to suggestion number three, "Bring it up at the dinner table."

Bring it up at the dinner table

Take all the knowledge you have on indigenous people and mention it at the Thanksgiving table. Point out that, despite the changing meaning of Thanksgiving, it is still important to acknowledge the holiday's roots no matter how messy. You may make a few family members uncomfortable, but they can get over it. A moment of uneasiness compared to hundreds of years of community suffering? I’d say most would choose the uneasiness.

Perhaps, after making your tipsy aunt squirm in her seat, you can suggest everyone in the family cough up five dollars which will be donated to a Native American organization that evening. What better way to wrap up an “awkward” conversation than to encourage family activism? :)

Buy from Native-Owned Businesses

Support indigenous people by purchasing items from their stores. It is easy to do and has immediate payoff (no pun intended).

Since gift-giving holidays are around the corner (Christmas, Hanukkah, and the like) consider integrating this practice into your December shopping. The American Indian Business Alliance has a directory of native-owned shops, while Redstreak Girl and Lone offer personal lists here and here.

Participate in Unthanksgiving or National Day of Mourning

If you live near San Francisco you may want to consider marching in Unthanksgiving day, also known as the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony. It takes place on Alcatraz on Thanksgiving and commemorates the island's activist occupation in 1969, the promotion of First Nation peoples' rights, the loss of Native American lives with the colonization of America, and the resilience of native people.

The National Day of Mourning is also held on Thanksgiving in Massachusetts for interested parties. 

Celebrate Umoja Karamu instead

I won't lie, I had no clue what Umoja Karamu (pronounced You-mo-ja Care-a-moo) was until I started researching for this article. According to the article "Umoja Karamu: The Other Thanksgiving" by Janice Robinson-Celeste, "[Umoja Karamu] is becoming an alternative holiday for African American families who want to distance themselves from the European Thanksgiving."

Not unlike Thanksgiving, Umoja Karamu includes a large dinner with friends and family along with an intentional menu and decor.

"Specific foods and colors on the table are used symbolically to represent meaningful periods and elements in the African American experience," Robinson-Celeste explains.

Technically, this holiday falls on the fourth Sunday of November, but you can always substitute Thanksgiving with Umoja Karamu if you so please.

What about you? What are your thoughts on Thanksgiving? Do you celebrate it, take issue with it, or both? How do you acknowledge it’s problematic history? Let me know in the comments below.