November 20, 2022

Giving Thanks and Telling Truth

Ali Michael

As we head into this holiday season, I find myself awkwardly maneuvering around the question of Thanksgiving... "Happy....uh...do you celebrate Thanksgiving?" "Have a great...uh...time off!"

Thanksgiving is an old ritual, a national holiday, a vacation time full of traditions. But many of us know that it's also a myth, one that erases and hurts Native people in the US today.

What do we do with the fact that Thanksgiving is a holiday built on a historically inaccurate mythology? What do we say to our kids? I highly recommend this podcast episode from Matika Wilbur at All My Relations podcast. In it, she talks with her 12 year old nephew Thomas about the lies and myths that he's learning about Thanksgiving at school.

Three things struck me as I listened, which will impact my mindset at Thanksgiving this year:

  1. It's ironic that the story we tell about Thanksgiving recounts a peace agreement between colonists and Native people (in this case, the Wampanoag), because we know what came next. The centuries since that mythological first meal have been anything but peaceful.
  2. Teaching children a false history is actually more traumatic and destructive than waiting for the developmentally right time to tell the real history. That doesn't mean we have to teach genocide to 5 year olds, but it does mean we should be cautious not to teach lies that will be hard to unlearn as they get older.
  3. Native people have substantial traditions of giving thanks. As 12 y/o Thomas points out, gratitude is good for all of us.

This Thanksgiving I want to emphasize the development of an ongoing gratitude practice. When we have gratitude for one another, for the generosity of the Earth, for good health, for laughter, for kindness, for creativity, for beauty, we set ourselves up not only for more happiness, but to be less exploitative. When we are grateful for what we have, we feel less desperate to get more. This act alone is an act of solidarity with Native people whose lives and health are inextricable from the health of the land.

November is also Native American Heritage Month. This is a great time to learn more about contemporary struggles of Native people, I highly recommend Season 2 of the podcast "This Land" with host Rebecca Nagle. This podcast has helped me learn more about:

  1. Current cases before the Supreme Court that have a huge impact on Native people
  2. Tribal sovereignty
  3. The ways that even antiracism can undermine the identity, status, and overall existence of Native people by suggesting that Native-ness is no more than an individual and group identity. In fact, Native-ness is also a political status that signifies membership in nations that have agreements with the US--agreements and treaties that continue to be broken today.

Whatever you do as you move into this Thanksgiving, even if you simply trip over the words "Happy...uh...do you celebrate...uh...", know that being in the inquiry, asking "What should I say?" and unsettling the myth is all movement towards a more just future.

with gratitude,


P.S. For great TV by and about Native people, watch Reservation Dogs over the break:)

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I fell for it

Ali Michael, PhD