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Last week, my seven-year-old sister, knee-deep in her “has a question about literally everything” phase, asked me where holidays come from.
I dutifully went through every American holiday and, to the best of my knowledge, explained the origins of each. When we got to Thanksgiving, I hesitated. In elementary school, every year, like clockwork, we were told the story of the pilgrims and Indians, how they came together to help each other through the brutal winter and sat around a campfire sharing a meal. We made turkeys by tracing our hands and pilgrim hats using construction paper and that was the end of our Thanksgiving education.
The estimated 55 million indigenous people murdered by said pilgrims, or more accurately colonizers, beginning in 1492 (when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue) weren’t mentioned to me until high school.
Thanksgiving took on a new, much darker connotation.
I explained this to my little sister the best I could. I told her what I was taught in school, how and why it was untrue and assured her that now Thanksgiving was about family and being grateful for different things in life. We had erased the old meaning and gave way to something better.
That’s what I said, and yet, I didn’t fully believe my own words.
Who was I to decide that Thanksgiving had been reclaimed as something else? It is not my history to reclaim. It was not my people who underwent this genocide, who are continuing to suffer under ignored treaties and modern-day colonization.
I began to question the true morality in celebrating this holiday. It sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts, opinions and perspectives. But I quickly realized the only opinion that actually mattered: that of Native Americans. What I found in the articles I read and videos I watched surprised me. Many Native people celebrate Thanksgiving in the same capacity that I do, using it as an excuse to bring family together and enjoy a good meal.
Of course, there were differing opinions.
Some see the holiday as a period of mourning for the millions of lives lost. They spend Thanksgiving attending cultural ceremonies to honor their ancestors and family members. Others don’t celebrate the holiday at all, seeing no reason why they should.
I came away from my research with a greater understanding of how this controversial holiday is perceived and the grave importance of educating children on its true history. The damage of Thanksgiving arises when its past is ignored and the Native people who suffered greatly are trivialized, reduced to sweet stories of pilgrims and feasts.