Thanksgiving - More Than a Turkey Dinner
By Lawrence Ware
November 26, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - It’s Thanksgiving once
again: the day every year when we all engage in gluttony to
celebrate the fact that White People were saved by Native Americans
— at least that is how it has been framed historically.
I was horrified to learn that my son was being
taught that the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because Pilgrims
(read: white people) were given food and learned farming techniques
from those helpful, colorful Indians. In class he was shown
pictures of happy Native Americans bringing food to joyful Pilgrims
— as if the whole thing were a dinner party.
This is not new.
In America, there is a long-standing tradition of
whitewashing the past. History in this country is taught as if only
people whose skin was white contributed significantly to America.
One of the major reasons why many find the concept of a “white
history month” asinine is because in all months save February
American history is told from a white perspective. It is the fact of
euro-centrism that demands the need for Black History Month in
February and Native American Heritage Month in November.
This euro-centrism seduces us into thinking that
Thanksgiving should be celebrated because the Pilgrims were able to
survive so that they were able to found America. This is a deeply
problematic notion. It completely devalues the contributions made by
the Wampanoag, and turns a blind eye to the suffering visited upon
millions of native people in the wake of that first Thanksgiving.
Let’s be honest: every year on the last Thursday
of November, we celebrate the beginning of a European invasion that
ends with the death or relocation of millions of native people.
While many have tried to redefine the meaning of Thanksgiving into a
time when we cultivate a sense of gratitude, the undeniable truth is
that the blood of native people stains the genesis of the holiday.
So why celebrate Thankgiving? I think there are a
The Proliferation of Native Foods
Thanksgiving is a rare holiday in that sharing
food is central to participating in the celebration. The food that
one eats during a Thanksgiving meal reflects the culture of the ones
that prepared it — food is a product of culture. As Jacqueline
Keeler, a member of the Dakota tribe, stated in her brilliant
editorial “Thanksgiving: A Native American View,” “I sometimes
wonder what they ate in Europe before they met us. Spaghetti without
tomatoes? Meat and potatoes without potatoes?”
She makes a powerful point.
Native people are only associated with select
foods: squash, corn, fry bread, and the like. What is not as well
known is the degree to which even the history of food has been
whitewashed. Europeans are often viewed as the ones who brought
culture to native people, but what is not as well known is the
degree to which the Europeans colonized native foods. Many of the
dishes we consider inherently Italian, Spanish, or Irish would be
impossible without the food native people introduced to European
settlers. What we eat on Thanksgiving can be a means of recognizing
the contributions of native people to our beloved family recipes.
Native History and Culture
Insofar as November has already been declared
Native American Heritage Month, we can take seriously the charge to
make learning about native culture and the contributions of native
people as important as learning about African American history in
February. Native languages are dying, and the survival of a culture
is linked to the survival of its language. There are serious tribal
efforts underway to preserve the First Americans’ way of life, but
educators can be more intentional about including native language,
history, and culture in curriculums in November. Thanksgiving can be
a wonderful opportunity to learn about the contributions of native
people beyond that first meal between the pilgrims and the
Take back the night
No longer should we allow Thanksgiving to be about
the Pilgrims who survived. It should be about the Wampanoag who gave
selflessly; it is not about the beginning of Manifest Destiny, it is
a day clothed in melancholy — remembering what was lost. Take back
the holiday from colonial hands. Let us make the holiday about the
voices that were silenced instead of the cultural forces that
Let us be mindful of all oppressed people during
this holiday — especially those who are economically marginalized.
In the same way that Thanksgiving Day has been coopted by powerful
colonial forces, powerful economic forces have commoditized the
Let us honor those who were marginalized by
colonization by standing in solidarity with those who are
marginalized by capitalism. Across this country, workers who do not
make a living, saving wage will stand up for their rights on Black
Friday. Let’s stand with them. Find a protest near you:
We shall make Thanksgiving about the oppressed,
not the oppressor.
Lawrence Ware is a professor and
lecturer in philosophy at Oklahoma State University; pastor of
Christian education at the Prospect Missionary Baptist Church in
Oklahoma City; a member of the Choctaw Nation, and a member of DSA.