On Thursday, many of us will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s a day to remember all the things for which we are thankful, a day to be spent with our families and cherished friends. Most of the morning and early afternoon is spent making a huge meal composed of way too much food (thank goodness for leftover casseroles and sandwiches, right?), and lots of bantering, joking, and all-around good feelings. At the end of the day, the turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and green bean casserole and PIE (and so on) has created a food-induced state of unconsciousness among all of us. We go to sleep, and we wake up the next day at 3 am (or earlier), already focused on the upcoming Christmas holiday. And that’s that.
But over the past few years, I’ve been having a much harder time being thankful and merry on Thanksgiving. As the day approaches, I feel a sort of sadness instead. I’m about 6% Ojibwe, but grew up in a very Scandinavian household that was just shy of ‘ashamed’ of my minimal Native ancestry. As such, I don’t really know much about what it means to be Ojibwe. I see my lack of connection and relationship to my tribe as a direct result of the hundreds of years of genocide, forced assimilation, and constant cultural demeaning of Native Americans across the United States.
I didn’t know much about Native history until graduate school (other than things like the Pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, Sacagawea, and random ‘how the Wild West was won’ [yuck] battles). Now, like other micro- and macroaggressions, Thanksgiving doesn’t necessarily bring to mind what it does for others, a time of peace between European settlers and indigenous people. Rather, it reminds me of the traumas endured by those indigenous peoples from acts of genocide and violence, the effect of which is still felt today in many, if not all, Native communities.
It reminds me of past U.S. federal policies (such as the Indian Removal Act), as well as the misleading and often broken land and peace treaties, that resulted in forced removals of American Indians from their rightful lands and the breaking up of communities.
It reminds me of the forced assimilation practices (such as boarding schools) whose goal was to destroy Native traditions and customs in addition to family systems. As Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the U.S. Training and Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania once said, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
It reminds me of programs like the Indian Adoption Project, in which children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in order to be adopted into white families, often without the knowledge of their parents, under the pretense that the families were neglecting their children (or often with no bother of having a reason at all). It makes me think of mothers not knowing where their own children were, searching for years for their bodies, not knowing they were growing up ‘white’ in some other family’s home. Imagine being one of these mothers.
And it reminds me of my own personal sense of loss, that I have so much information and knowledge about my European background, but absolutely nothing on my Ojibwe ancestry, due to a sense of shame stemming from my family’s Native roots.
So, this Thanksgiving, I urge you to think about what it might mean to be the “Indian” in the “Pilgrims and Indians” tale. Remember, history is written by the conquerors, and despite current U.S. policies proclaiming the rights and sovereignty of Native tribes, there is still oppression and denigration of Native Americans today.