This year Thanksgiving is going to look different. Because the pandemic is still raging on, families may have to make the uncomfortable call to host a smaller Thanksgiving dinner this year or not host visitors at all. You may be going home to be with your family and to continue your finals remotely in the following weeks. You may be on campus and enjoying the few days of less zoom classes and meetings during the end of next week. After a stressful and long year, and since we cannot celebrate over dinner with as many people as in previous years, it is more important than ever to practice gratitude for the times we do get to spend with family and for the things we have. This week, CSSJ’s “Week of Thanks” helps you do just that.
But I want to draw your attention away from this innocent picture of Thanksgiving. It is indeed understood in our national consciousness as a time to celebrate and give thanks for all we are grateful for. And that is important. But the holiday’s dark roots originate from the brutal colonization of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. Children attending public school in the American education system typically learn that Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate how the Pilgrims—then recently settled colonists in Massachusetts—and the Wampanoag Native Americans came together and feasted. They did gather together, but what goes unrecognized today is the twisted celebration of the colonists’ subsequent massacre of a group of Pequot Native Americans that resulted in a colonist leader declaring a “Day of Thanksgiving” to honor their atrocity.
Native peoples have been celebrating the harvest and giving thanks to the land for years, an idea similar to how many Americans view the holiday today. But the current American celebration of Thanksgiving dates back to the seventeenth century, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe gathered. But in 1637, the holiday we now know today as “Thanksgiving” was designated when Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a “Day of Thanksgiving” to celebrate the return of colonists who had just massacred a town of Pequot Native Americans in Connecticut. Today, some Native peoples mourn these lost ancestors on the Day of Mourning, which is also on the fourth Thursday of November each year. It is important to recognize—on the fourth Thursday of November and every day—and call attention to the brutal history of colonization and erasure of Native culture and peoples by the United States. Carlisle’s place in this history is particularly atrocious: Carlisle was the site of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where founder Richard Pratt’s motto was “kill the Indian, save the man”. This is just one example of how our country has stolen Native cultures, refused to ignore centuries-old treaties, and committed genocide against Native peoples and nations. To move toward a decolonialized and just future for Indigenous peoples, it is essential we recognize this colonialist history and do no more harm.
While looking to the past and working to dismantle colonial structures in the U.S., I think it is also important to uplift contemporary Indigenous voices and celebrate Indigenous joy. One recent example from the election period two weeks ago: six Native candidates were just elected to the U.S. Congress! Another example, this one of art: Project 562 by Matika Wilbur, who photographed Indigenous communities all across the nation to challenge stereotypes and represent contemporary Native America through art. Check it out here! There are of course many more examples online.
When I was a junior at Dickinson, I took a course with a former Professor in the American Studies Department, Prof. Dragone. She taught a wonderful and invaluable course titled “Native American Activism and Resurgence: Red Power to #NoDAPL”. I remember learning about the history of Thanksgiving in her class, and cringing at how awful it is and how unaware I was of it before that class. I’m ashamed to say I never knew about this dark history growing up, and I never thought twice about the fact that I lived on stolen Indigenous land (courtesy of the Doctrine of Discovery—learn more here). So I encourage you, this Thanksgiving, to call attention to the darker side of its history to your family members if you are gathering with them, and research indigenous perspectives. The Clarke Forum, before each lecture or livestream they host, has one of their student project managers announce what Indigenous land they are currently inhabiting. Follow their advice to do the same. Look at this map of Turtle Island to see what land you are on. Some Native communities are mourning on the day we call Thanksgiving. In the fight for a just world, we cannot ignore our country’s deep history of colonization that has permeated our culture for centuries. And acknowledging it isn’t enough—we have to decolonize the future.
Written by Angelica Mishra ’19, CSSJ Program Coordinator
November 18, 2020
Cover image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian