Giving Thanks By Getting Real

Digital illustration by Julie Coppens based on The First Thanksgiving 1621, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, oil on canvas c. 1915.
Digital illustration by Julie Coppens based on The First Thanksgiving 1621,
by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, oil on canvas c. 1915.

Editor’s note: This essay from last November, by one our student participants from Aiken H.S., bears repeating–so we’re serving it up again.

By Joyeuse Muhorakeye, Democracy & Me Intern

To most people in the United States, Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends get together for a warm, hearty meal, usually with American football on the TV. The feasting tradition is meant to honor how the Indigenous Wampanoag people saved the colonizing Europeans by sharing their fall harvest and teaching them how to live on the land–but that’s not the whole truth when it comes to the history of the day. 

What is the real story behind Thanksgiving? Maybe this year, as we’re being responsible by (I hope) not traveling or having large family parties during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can take it a step further, by learning what American colonization really meant for Indigenous communities and cultures. You can start with Dr. David Child’s essay on the Democracy & Me blog; Teen Vogue and The New York Times also have some great articles worth reading, since you might have some extra free time this holiday weekend. 

“Learn about the land you’re standing on and the history of it,” writes Dakota/Lakota Sioux attorney and biologist Ruth Hopkins in Teen Vogue. She talks about how to be a better ally during this Native American Heritage Month, and offers some respectful do’s and don’ts. 

Revisionist historians, and politicians like Donald Trump want to emphasize “American Exceptionalism,” or what we like to think is “great” about America. Especially when it comes to how this nation was “settled” and built, we are often taught what is simple and understandable instead of what’s difficult and true. 

Looking at history from different perspectives can help us see things more clearly. As a person born in Rwanda, in Africa, I see parallels from my own experience to that of the Indigenous people of America. My ancestors were treated similarly to those of Native Americans, by the same kinds of people from Europe. Many of the Indigenous people of the Americas–those who survived the violence, enslavement and disease brought by the colonizers–became refugees when they were placed on reservations as prisoners in their own land. As a result of generations of colonization and imperialism, many indigenous Africans became refugees, like I am. It is because of this invasion by Europeans that my family ultimately had to flee our own country and our own continent. We were not looking for a Thanksgiving feast. We were looking for survival, security, and respect. We’re still looking.

Thanksgiving can and should be about the real relationships we have with other people.  The relationship between Pilgrims and Indigenous People was… complicated at best. We can only honor this day by seeking a deeper understanding of that history, making amends where we can, protecting the vulnerable from COVID-19, and preparing ourselves for a better American future. 

Keep an open mind, wear a mask, and (safely) pass the mashed potatoes!

#DontWearFeathersThisThanksgiving  #WearAMask

1 Comment

  1. This is a very insightful and informative article. I really appreciated when Joyeuse said we should “Learn about the land” we are “standing on and the history of it.” She furthermore pointed out that “Revisionist historians, and our current President, want to emphasize “American Exceptionalism,” or what we like to think is “great” about America.” What also makes this article insightful is that Joyeuse shared her personal experience as a refugee from Rwanda. What a brave and intelligent soul! It is an honor to read her writing and learn about everyday heroes like her. Well done my sister in the struggle.

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