The Decolonization of Thanksgiving

By Chance Carpenter


Throughout nearly every child’s upbringing in the United States, there is almost always the proliferated, generalized retelling of the pilgrims and indians in the month of November, around the somewhat newly acquired holiday that is Thanksgiving. This holiday has come to take on a great deal of meaning in contemporary society, as fathers and mothers are given one, if not multiple days off from their work schedule, to spend with family and friends as a great feast is often provided, to which everyone expresses what they are thankful for. While the tradition of Thanksgiving has become a day of much celebration for many people, there are many Native American individuals who live out this particular holiday with a deep feeling of sorrow and frustration. Many of them have gone through the western education systems and have been told to celebrate this day, but throughout their maturation they have also come to understand the deeper histories behind this holiday; histories steeped in the genocide of many Native American people.

This past Thanksgiving Break, I was greatly assisted in facilitating a multi-cultural, non-violent protest on the day of Thanksgiving at Arrillaga Dining at Stanford University, in order to bring greater attention to the current systematical oppressions that have been occurring throughout the Americas. One part of the protest was designated to the Ferguson protesters, whose operations center around the overwhelming number of unarmed black people being gunned down by police officers in the U.S. streets. As they occupied the lower parts of the stairwell with the sprawled out postures analogous to a murder event, the top platform was where two protesters were stationed to pass out flyers about the colonial and American Victorian histories of how Thanksgiving was associated with Native American oppression and genocide. Once people had retrieved their food buffet style, On each table was another flyer that informed people of the 43 Ayotzinapa students that were detained by Mexican government officials, then handed over to the infamous gang Guerreros Unidos, who killed and disposed of them inhumanely. Lastly, there were a significant number of students, some joining in after hearing about the protest, that sat in chairs on the outskirts and facing the buffets with an empty plate to signify that they were fasting in remembrance and acknowledgement of all these atrocities that have occurred.

In light of the true histories of Thanksgiving and the holiday taking place during Native American Heritage Month, I would like to ask that Stanford University take the utmost initiative in declaring that the week off be changed on the calendars to a Week of Remembrance, in reflection of the colonial histories of Native American people and the overwhelming amount of systematic violence that has or may affect members of all community centers on campus every year. My hope is that a significant change such as this would encourage students to engage in the deeper struggles of humanity that all groups are faced with and that in the time given off, they are encouraged to engage in the betterment of society as they so choose.

Within the book by Oyate titled “Thanksgiving: a Native Perspective, there is a speech from Frank James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe that is popularly described as the original forebears of the Thanksgiving feast with the pilgrims that landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1970, he was asked to deliver a speech at the spot in Plymouth where the original Thanksgiving was supposed to have occurred (Oyate 36). Frank agreed to do so, but later refused once he was instructed that he would be reading a prepared speech by a public relations individual instead of his own work.

In his suppressed speech, Frank James talks about how heavy it is to look back at the experiences of his ancestors and a great deal of atrocities that were passed down through oral accounts. One such experience written down by James goes as follows: 

…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans. Mourt’s Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men—he goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indian’s winter provisions as they were able to carry.

Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag knew these facts, yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic, or his knowledge of the harsh on-coming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was probably our greatest mistake…

James retells this account with the strong insightful detail of knowing the name of the Wampanoag tribal leader that had chosen to befriend the pilgrims and a number of unsavory actions the pilgrims had committed that are never mentioned in colonial history books, but have nonetheless been passed down through the oral tradition. His acknowledgement as a member of the Wampanoag tribe is very significant, for the 1970’s was a time in which the American Indian Movement took place and American Indians sought “new determination” as a mass and for their distinct groups (Oyate 38). James also acknowledges the vacuum that materialistic society creates as people necessitate making a living over the more liberal approaches of confronting historical injustices. As people questioned the motives of the activists in the 1970’s, analogously as they question them contemporarily, there needs to be an understanding to come across of how the somewhat recently reclaimed status of minorities like Native Americans has empowered them to finally speak out about injustices as other groups currently are and have around the 1970’s.

Around the time that Frank James had written this speech, the Wampanoag tribe from Massachusetts that he descended from did not exist in the eyes of the federal government. This is largely due to the federal government’s involvement in deciding the federal recognition status of indian tribes and what their criteria for making such extinguishing was. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the Gay Head Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts came to be made federally recognized, which is only 30 or so years ago (Quinn 332). This was around the 1979 time period  in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs selectively chose to include some indian groups into federal recognition, while some were not (Quinn 334).  Federal recognition has been, in my experience, a sort of chess match that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has played with many tribes over ceding land with natural resources, whether it is the government designating reservation land to particular tribes, or tribes losing their aboriginal territories, and therefore their federal recognition. Why this list of federally recognized tribes was not created during the initial establishment of the B.I.A. in 1822, I do not know (Quinn 334). Many tribes, like the Wampanoag, had to become recognized, despite many texts on a Thanksgiving feast that clearly acknowledged their tribal existence. This was a concern that was greatly expressed in his speech. Towards the end of his speech, he stresses, “We are determined and our presence here this evening is living testimony that it is only a beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours” (38). In his words, he acknowledges that a determined presence is required in order for Native American people to regain their status as visible citizens of the United States, especially since, “We’re being heard; we are now being listened to” (38). This was certainly not the case in years past for the Wampanoag, who were not considered, “to have been included by the legislatures as Indians or Indian Tribes affected by American Indian Policy” (Quinn 339).

A more compounded summary of multiple events of Thanksgiving were written by Janet Siskind, an Anthropologist of Rutgers University. In her article, titled, “The Invention of Thanksgiving: A ritual of American nationality”, she analyzed how in 1637 and 1676, the two that heralded celebrations of thanksgiving celebrated, “defeat of the Pequots; the second, in 1676, hailed success in the war against the [Wampanoags] and their allies” (178). Siskind mentions how the first victory over the indians was viewed as a sort of divine intervention in a test by God of the Puritans. This definitely seems to be the perspective of the Puritans, who viewed themselves as the “chosen people” (178). The 1676 celebration of the defeat and spectacled showcased beheading of the Wampanoag and their leader, referred to by Plymouth church as “King Philip”, became religiously contextualized as representing, “the biblical monster sent to try Job, a non-human in contrast to �?people’” (178). She even goes into explaining what is significance that the turkey is to Thanksgiving, Based on her deep anthropological analysis, She also states that the 17th century is the time in which the representative terms “heathen” and “noble savage” are applied to Native American people.

Siskind also took to analyzing the symbolic significance behind the Thanksgiving turkey, a bird which happens to be indigenous to North America. She states:

The co-occurrence of wild and domesticated birds makes a perfect metaphor for Native Americans. Like the turkey, Indians were either wild or domesticated. Although feared, wild Indians were more admirable in a sense, or flavorful, more �?game’, an enemy to be respected, if also to be killed. A Native American converted to Christianity and �?civilization’ was a domesticated Indian, like the supplicating, androgynous Indian on the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a validation of the Pilgrims’ mission. As a true �?native of America’ the turkey, wild and domesticated, could easily become a symbol for those other native, constructed not as Americans but as Indians…others.

Her description of the wild or domesticated states of the turkey, in comparison to civilization’s generalized notion of the wild or domesticated states of Native American people really strikes me as one of the great fears behind why society did not want to approach the issue of Native American activism in the 1970’s. It was systematically viewed not as self-determination, but a degradation of the “domesticated indian” from civilization to a more “wild” state. From this lense, it seems more clear why native people who attempt to decolonize ideologies, like Thanksgiving, are met with criticisms of being radical and become “others”. It is much easier to place someone in such a category than to try to put one’s self in such an unsettling perspective.

As tribes became more active in seeking out federal recognition, Congress created a group known as the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which came to request, “that Congress establish a standard for determining the tribal status of non-recognized Indian groups (Admin. L. J. 906-907). During this time, many “derecognized” tribes sought federal recognition through petitioning of the U.S.

In the establishment of the 7 criteria that are necessary for indian tribes to receive federal recognition (Quinn 335), one of those criteria is for a particular indian group to, “establish that they have been identified from historical times  to the present on a substantially continuous basis as �?American Indian’ or �?aboriginal’”. One can see how problematic this criteria can be if that individual tribe has lost the continuity of federal recognition within the time periods of 1822 and the federal recognition in 1979. Indeed, there were a significant number of problems with the FAP (Federal Acknowledgement Process) that involve no concise definition of what tribal people need the B.I.A. to verify in order for there to be any recognition granted. Although not as absent as the 157 years prior that the Wampanoag people had persevered through before being granted recognition, some of the defining histories that the Wampanoag are known by to the Bureau may be influenced by the very popular story of the indians and the pilgrims, thus perpetuating the cycle of the continuance of the story.

In my experiences of constructively protesting Thanksgiving at Arrillaga Dining, I noted how seemingly invisible I felt to a number of people that had surely read the flyers handed to them and had experienced the multi-cultural awareness to issues of systematic violence and oppression. A number of people snapped pictures to save the moment and probably post about it on Facebook. Some people joined us as I instructed them to various positions. Our greatest opposition to our peaceful protest was the Dining Hall Administration, who felt the need to call in the police and the fire marshall to determine whether or not students were obstructing entry and exit points, making them a fire hazard to be forcibly removed. With a laugh, The fire marshall determined that we were not an obstruction of safety and he, along with the police, left immediately.

A number of students were shocked that we had been placed in such a category as being “safety threats”, something that was so far from our intention. A safety threat is something that is definitely visible, but the denotation as dangerous beings was not the type of recognition we deserved. If anything, our messages were to the harms of events around the date of Thanksgiving  and historically ignored in it’s modern day remembrance. We each had a portion to contribute and played crucial roles in the multi-ethnic and racial information that we were attempting to get across, something that would not have been as potent had we been separate, isolated events. I think that in light of what occurred, our support for each other shows a great deal in understanding and attempting to decolonize oppressive systems.

In order to understand how the holiday of Thanksgiving came to be integrated into the American schedule, I sought out the work of Elizabeth Pleck, whose Journal article on the topic is titled, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States”. Pleck explains that the domestic occasion came out of the history of lower class males begging for sustenance from the wealthy and prosperous, and eventually changing historically to private middle class festivities (773). Within the twentieth century, the general occasion becomes the emphasis on family gathering for all classes, whether that be close family, non-nuclear family members or friends. Because the industrial revolution gave way to greater emphasis on the work schedule and how much more disciplined the time of the worker would have to be with family, it became more predicated that Thanksgiving be a holiday on a given day. Pleck also drew upon the foundational idea of “invented tradition” from Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, who described the phenomenon as “ a ritual implying continuity with the past, even though that continuity is largely fictitious” and that “the invented tradition met the needs of people in the present for a sense of connection with the past, and a desire of people in a modern world” (774). One of the problems that I can see with the overall invented tradition process is how the fictitious continuity would compete with the historical past accounts and lived experiences. The fictitious nature of the positive relations between the early settlers and indians during what is arguably the first thanksgiving was not a continuous event into more modern times. Nevertheless, the feast that occurred between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims is perpetuated as the end-all-be-all of interracial relations between settlers and Native America as a whole.

Another crucial piece to this argument is how the past accounts and lived experiences of Native Americans around Thanksgiving are perceived when brought up in contemporary society. Pleck brings up another term, “family homecoming”, when referring to the festive gathering of Thanksgiving (775). This term signifies that an individual has, in the words of Sarah Josepha Hale “the gratified hospitality, the obliging civility and unaffected happiness of this excellent family” (Northwood 111). Pleck had implied from this that Hale was referring to what symbolizes a model American family; being self-made, yet obedient to the family reunion centered around Thanksgiving. For me, I know that I have a very hard time as a Native American at Stanford of recognizing and speaking out about the historical injustices within the invented tradition of Thanksgiving because it is seen and heard as incivility towards what should be “unaffected happiness” of many who aspire and follow the model American family structure. At the same time, I am compelled towards qualities of “family homecoming” because I am in college, attempting to be a self-made individual. By not participating in this American tradition, I am seen as un-american. By participating in the family homecoming, I am also at a fault of not acknowledging the injustices that occurred to Native people in the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday. This is where I believe the renaming of the week to being Fall Break maybe, or even “Week of Remembrance” is of great importance because although the University cannot argue against a national holiday of this significance, it can rename this break period to one of remembrance and reflection upon historical Native American issues, thus engaging students to histories that are not as fictitious and therefore much deeper than what is told and is perpetuated in primary and secondary school textbooks.

In the process of writing about Thanksgiving and reflecting what I’ve written with my overall experience with protesting to decolonize Thanksgiving, I have come to understand how hard it is to represent a view that is far from what is normalized in contemporary society, but in that deep search for understanding some of the perspectives of Native people, I’ve found greater comfortability with the domestic occasion qualities of the holiday. Nevertheless, in order to properly honor the continued existence of Native American people in the U.S. today, the holiday needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed to truly honor the memories of Native people. As the leading elite university in the country on a number of innovations, I implore that Stanford reconsider the fall period that is labeled “Thanksgiving Break”, as well as the Thanksgiving holiday itself, and come to a new, more inclusive meaning to the holiday name as we approach to reconstruct as many systematic forms of oppression as possible.