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Zenobia Jefferies: Don’t Trash Thanksgiving. Decolonize It

Despite the holiday’s false origin tale, we can celebrate with our families in ways that honor those whom the day originally dishonored.


Ultimately, within our families and communities and schools, we should stop, reinterpret, and repurpose traditions that are harmful, either in theory or practice. (Photo: PeopleImages/Getty Images)


Every year, more Americans opt out of celebrating Thanksgiving. Others heavily consider it.

We don’t have to reject the holiday completely. We can, and should, decolonize, and reinterpret it.

Maybe it’s because they don’t have friends and family to share the holiday with, or simply don’t want to share the holiday with the friends and family they have.

Maybe it has something to do with the myth of Pilgrims giving thanks to “Indians” for helping them grow their first crop for the harvest, and reconciling that with the truth about the genocide of Indigenous peoples on this land by those settlers.

But we don’t have to reject the holiday completely. We can, and should, decolonize, and reinterpret it.

This tale that the new settlers held a dinner after the harvest to thank the native peoples has been told to generations who have uncritically accepted it. By now, Americans should know that this version of the occasion told in school plays and history books is nothing more than the patriotic indoctrination that is the foundation of our education system.

The celebration dates back to the 17th century. And over time, people have debated its origin and purpose.

The fact is, there is no one event from which the holiday is derived. And around the world, other countries such as Canada, Liberia, Netherlands, the Philippines, and Germany celebrate their own Thanksgiving on different days.

Some historians have documented that the tradition came to the New World with the settlers. Some say the holiday was secular. Others say it was religious. It has been observed on various dates throughout history.

In the late 1700s, George Washington declared November 26 a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. Seventy-four years later, Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November to celebrate the Union’s military successes in Civil War. And in 1941, FDR signed a resolution changing the date from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday of the month.

Since then, many have chosen to replace the traditional celebration with ones that honor their sociopolitical or familial beliefs.

In 1970, a group of Indigenous peoples in the northeastern region of the U.S. protested the day. Ever since, they and their supporters have been observing it as a National Day of Mourning. Participants gather at noon to honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native people today. The ceremony held on Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts is in remembrance of their spiritual connections as well as in protest of the racism and oppression of Indigenous peoples.

Over time, educators and parents across racial groups have approached the decolonizing process by introducing nontraditional historical texts to their students and writing letters to K-12 schools requesting such texts be taught in place of the traditional myth. They cite the harm done to young people by lying to them.

One educator suggested a number of resources, including these texts and letters.

Other examples include more individual, and maybe less political or educational approaches.

Many of us celebrate what I learned later in life to call Family Day.

In some households, Pilgrims and “Indians” are never mentioned. Traditional American history is never mentioned.

The day is about spending time with family, and of course the culinary delights prepared by the matriarchs of our families.

My family would stand in a circle holding hands. We’d each share what we’re thankful for. My paternal grandmother would then pray and bless the food.

For some it’s about giving thanks by giving back to those who don’t have families to spend time with, or a meal to eat. They go to church, visit hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, food pantries, or folks on the streets in their communities. Some sponsor dinners for families who are experiencing financial challenges.

YES! reader shared that her family gave up their Thanksgiving turkey dinner to donate the money they would spend on food items to their local food bank.

“On [this] holiday we sit down with a simple bowl of rice (which two-thirds of the world population would have been happy to have) and we made lists of all the things and people we’re thankful to have and to know.”

Ultimately, within our families and communities and schools, we should stop, reinterpret, and repurpose traditions that are harmful, either in theory or practice.

I learned from my elders that when you know better, you should do better.

As we enter into this holiday, let’s acknowledge the movement of decolonization and re-education happening in our country.

We can observe and celebrate with our families in ways that honor those who the day originally dishonored, and those who continue to struggle under oppression.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

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