Decolonizing Thanksgiving in Oregon
By Marie Gettel-Gilmartin, Fertile Ground Communications
Many of us grew up learning the myth of Native Americans teaching the struggling pilgrims how to survive and celebrating with a feast in 1621. In fact, for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning. Thanksgiving is in fact a holiday of colonizers.
What actually happened on Thanksgiving?
As Claire Bugos writes in the Smithsonian, “Massacres, disease, and American Indian tribal politics shaped the Pilgrim-Indian alliance at the root of the holiday.”
Bugos writes that the settlers stole land, spread disease, and exploited resources from the Wampanoag tribe. Then King Philip’s War “devastated the Wampanoags and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European arrivals.”
Each year, Native American people in New England gather to honor their ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples on the National Day of Mourning. Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of the unjust treatment that Native Americans have continued to receive since the 1620 Plymouth landing.
What is Oregon doing to shift the narrative about native stories?
- In 2020, the Oregon Department of Education rolled out a “Tribal History/Shared History” curriculum. Oregon schools now have historically accurate and culturally inclusive lessons about Native Americans and local tribes. Oregon’s nine tribes collaborated on this curriculum to banish stereotypes, myths, and inaccuracies.
- The Oregon Food Bank honors the National Day of Mourning and acknowledges that Native Americans experience food insecurity at a staggeringly high rate compared to the rest of the nation. As shared on their blog, some of the most anti-Native policies happened in Oregon.
- The Grand Ronde tribes have an excellent collection of tribal history curriculum videos for grades kindergarten to tenth.
- The University of Oregon’s Native American Student Union hosts an annual “Thanks But No Thanks-giving: Decolonizing an American Holiday” event for students, faculty, and staff, where they discuss ways to show gratitude while identifying ways to decolonize the holiday.
What can we do in our organizations or at home to decolonize Thanksgiving?
- Think about what you eat for Thanksgiving dinner. How did these foods come to you? You can also buy American Indian foods from local tribes and businesses.
- Listen to perspectives on thanksgiving from Wampanoag youth.
- Watch a brilliant Native American film.
- Visit the Oregon Historical Society’s “Oregon is Indian Country” exhibit, currently at the Lake Oswego Public Library through December 8, 2021 and moving to Gold Beach in January.
- Unlearn myths with your kids. The Portland Public Schools website has some excellent resources. Read books about Thanksgiving by indigenous authors, such as Catherine O’Neill Grace’s 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving and Joseph Bruchac’s Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving. Or use this great hands-on activity from Teaching Tolerance. Get adult book suggestions from firstnations.org.
- Support contemporary Indigenous struggles by learning about the #LandBack movement and current land struggles faced by the Mashpee Wampanoag people.
- Find out what your community is doing to support the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women’s crisis.
- Follow the work of indigenous-led organizations such as Native American Rights Fund, Illuminatives, National Congress of American Indians, and the American Indian College Fund...or organizations here in Oregon.
And of course, we can still be thankful while acknowledging the harm done to native peoples by this holiday. To decolonize Thanksgiving, we need to examine our history to begin the healing process.
The Coalition acknowledges the many tribes and bands who call Oregon their ancestral territory, including: Burns Paiute; Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw; Confederated Tribes of Cow Creek Lower Band of Umpqua; Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde; Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians; Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation; Coquille Tribe; and Klamath Tribes. We honor the ongoing relationship between the land, plants, animals and people indigenous to this place we now call Oregon. We recognize the continued sovereignty of the nine federally recognized tribes who have ties to this place and thank them for continuing to teach us how we might all be here together.