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Thanksgiving Can Never Be Redeemed From Its Colonial Past. Let’s Abolish It.

The work of decolonization means refusing the banal evil of Thanksgiving.

Holidays such as Thanksgiving, where colonial conquest formed by slavery and genocide are overtly celebrated, often invisibilize the experience of unease and lack of safety, says Amrah Salomón.

Decolonization — the act of rejecting colonial oppression — requires the abolition of that which is harmful. Decolonization is not reform nor recuperation. It involves concrete material actions, such as rematriation of lands and getting rid of oppressive colonial structures and creating something else from (or despite) the ashes of what needs to be destroyed for Indigenous, Black, Brown, queer, disabled, and all “othered” life to regenerate.

Ashes are complicated. Depending on what was burned and how, ashes can be sacred, healing, clarifying and protecting. Fire is a strong part of many Indigenous cultures and land relations. Fire can be care and responsibility. Some ashes can act as fertilizers, while others are toxic and deadly. The life-threatening impacts of burning toxins reminds us that some things, such as fossil fuels, should have been left in the ground or never been used in the first place. The possibility of regeneration from the ashes really depends upon the character and quality of what was burned. This is a caution that reforms and repurposes can continue to emit the same toxicity they seek to address.

Given the genocidal origins of Thanksgiving, it is common for Indigenous folks to refer to it as “Thanks-Taking” or “No Thanks Day,” and many of us feel that the only way to decolonize this holiday is to abolish it.

Thanksgiving is based on a collage of colonial origin stories, religious mythology, regional approaches, commercial marketing and family traditions. The mosaic nature of its formation in our social worlds and interpersonal lives makes it a difficult thing to define and taboo to criticize. People tend to take critiques of the historical and legal facts of the holiday personally, even if no personal attack occurs.

Over the last few decades, the commercial sphere has moved away from overtly racist representations of the holiday — such as fake Indian head dresses, paper Indian decorations and offensive caricatures of Indigenous peoples.

These things have been replaced by cultural and ecological appropriations of Indigenous foods, spirituality and Indigenous life-ways that serve to link settlers to the lands they occupy. The holiday has been commercially and spiritually recuperated into a sanitized focus on community, family, nature and gratitude exemplified by cute little pumpkins and cornucopia baskets reminding us to be “grateful” in an attempt to unmoor the holiday from its colonial past.

This spiritual and ecological appropriation leaves no room for Indigenous critique or provocations such as refusal, abolition and decolonization. It also silences critiques of the capitalist exploitation that intensifies on this holiday, as essential and service workers are excluded from time off and brutalized by the consumerism of Black Friday, while being told not to organize because they won’t get others’ support for workers’ rights demands that would “ruin” a middle-class holiday.

The sanitization of the holiday also suppresses critiques from Indigenous peoples who are shamed for expressing rage and horror about repackaged versions of Thanksgiving and cast as “Debbie Downers” raining on a holiday that most claim isn’t about our oppression anymore, but is instead supposed to be about concepts dear to Indigenous spiritualities, such as community, traditional foods and gratitude.

Thanksgiving Is Inextricable From the Grammar of Colonial Violence

Surviving the genocide of colonial conquest is the common grammar shared across many Indigenous, Black and Brown communities, and an annual scene revealing these structures of feeling is the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Grammar is the structural constraints of what can be written or said, the laws of what can be expressed and how. Cultures create grammars of obvious and hidden rules about what can be talked about and how, defining what is acceptable and what is considered rude or ridiculous. How people negotiate national holidays — these annual occasions on which many (but not all) people are given time off from work — reveals the grammar behind the social fabric that a nation tries to weave.

Thanksgiving is woven explicitly with the grammar of colonialism and genocide, even if most of us want to avoid that historical design of the holiday. Sitting in that feeling of avoidance raises the question of whether it’s possible to decolonize Thanksgiving.

The social media discourse on Thanksgiving is very narrow in scope. Today some will share exposés of the disturbing historical and legal origins of the holiday, which was nationalized by Abraham Lincoln to unite forces fighting over slavery during the Civil War at the same time he was leading a war against the Sioux peoples. Some will share strategies for dealing with or holding boundaries against being forced to sit at a table with toxic relatives and in-laws. Some will share entertainment guides for sports and gangster movie marathons, while others share suggestions for recuperation of the holiday by disassociating it from its gruesome roots. Others will urge each other to resist consumerism by giving back, or engaging in acts of charity or solidarity. And some will share reminders that many Indigenous people do not celebrate the holiday and, in fact, find it offensive. Alternative activities for Indigenous peoples include National Day of Mourning vigils, intertribal gatherings, resistance ceremonies, and just being home with loved ones and elders for a day because many have the day off from work. But there is very little space to question whether we should be engaging the horror of this holiday at all.

Your Gratitude Is Terrorizing

Horror movies that use the trope of the vengeful Indigenous dead have long asked if this country’s colonial legacy has built nothing more than a haunted house waiting to explode. But the genre also offers us more nuanced lenses to question the world around us.

The threat of sudden catastrophe is terrifying, but nothing is more horrific than everyday, bucolic terror. The terror that you cannot name because it is so common, so mundane, so uneventful. The genre of found-footage horror, exemplified by films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, excels in the mixture of documentary reality articulated to creative narratives that blur the lines between fact and fiction, giving us the sense of witnessing and becoming part of a true story. Good horror works the mind over till we question and fear the darkness around us. Dystopian science fiction and fantasy functions in a similar way, showing us the horror of a world that we are already in or heading toward.

Thanksgiving marks a moment of horror-film-made-reality when genocide’s afterlife manifests through disquieting scenes of everyday habits and interactions. For the victims of settler colonialism and enslavement, the normalization of celebrating genocide masks a profound terror lurking underneath the joyously grateful exterior promoted by mainstream society.

The feeling of terror separates one from their surroundings; it moves you out of an imagined reality and into a place where what is real is not what it seems. Horror is an othering experience.

In a society founded upon genocide and slavery, where much of the structure of violent racism, heteropatriarchy and environmental extraction has not shifted, everyday real life is terror for many Black, Indigenous and Brown people. Holidays such as Thanksgiving or Columbus Day, where colonial conquest formed by slavery and genocide are overtly celebrated, are moments that reveal this often invisibilized experience of unease and lack of safety.

Thanksgiving is horror because it is an awkward real-life representation of the unrepresentable: that settlers are glad — in fact, grateful — that Indigenous peoples are dead. It is reinforced by the real-life terror of racist police brutality, the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and Two-Spirit relatives, and violence against Black lives, migrant children stolen and locked in cages, and the existential fear many Black, Indigenous, and people of color feel on a daily basis for doing things as basic as eating a hamburger or going to Walmart.

It is impossible to escape the feelings of ultimate dread the holiday creates as it normalizes settler gratitude. Horror is the mode of thinking and feeling through fear, anxiety, shock, disgust and trauma. The genre of horror is popular in part because it’s a space where the connections between heart, mind and body are often most clear — we can feel how fear and dread viscerally change our physiology, how we think and feel through our bodies when a cold chill runs through our spine, our hairs stand on end, our pulse races and the pit of our stomach drops. Horror also attunes us to our intuition and sixth senses, to what we know and feel but have been gaslit for insisting is real.

For a lot of Indigenous, Black and Brown folks, Thanksgiving makes the contextual anxiety of colonial and racial terror visible via never-ending, inescapable microaggressions and gaslighting. Thanksgiving, especially as it becomes more and more centered on tropes of gratitude that silence dissent, is a unique form of cultural horror that feels like walking through a Jordan Peele movie every year and functions to silence justified rage and radical possibilities in multiple ways.

Thanksgiving is loaded with assumptions of settler innocence that works to absolve colonial society from both historical responsibility and accountability for prevention of future genocide. The deeply emotional and personalized reaction some people have against critiquing the holiday is a manifestation of how the trope of settler innocence has been internalized. For those of us who question celebrating genocide, there is a constant dread of that awkward and cringing moment when someone will respond that “they don’t really get into the whole pilgrim and Indian thing,” or “our holiday is not really about that,” and gaslight us while ignoring that there is a very clear reason why the government and your job give you two days off in November, because this is neither a national shopping day nor a national park hiking day. It is Thanksgiving, and that does have historical significance.

It doesn’t matter that your own Thanksgiving actions are focused on something else — football, shopping, watching Godfather marathons, hiking, thanking your friends and family, praying over food, trying to connect with land, getting drunk and eating pie, etc.

The terrorizing tension between gratitude, togetherness and historical death bound together through the framing of this holiday reminds us of how the horrors of our historical past were legalized, accepted and legitimized by people who were probably considered to be very nice, normal and spiritual by their friends and families. By doing anything at all that could be co-opted into the larger framework of Thanksgiving on the dates set aside by state and capital to do so, we end up unfortunately participating in it.

All of us, regardless of background, should be horrified by genocide, as much as we would be of other facts that we don’t shut down discourse on through self-indulgent projections of innocence, like the world being round despite the fact that some insist is not so. We should all be enraged.

The need for collective rest is critical, and we should demand more time off from work to be together. But let’s also reject celebrating genocide or conflating our rare access to collective down time with racist histories. No task, no recipe for solidarity or action could absolve genocide. It is unforgivable. There is just the need to sit with the uncomfortable and awful, and the resolve to end it rather than perpetuate it. Sometimes we need to remind each other not to sit down at a table built to harm us or walk into the dark cellar alone. Take a lesson from the movies, and fight back against the zombie apocalypse. Abolish racist and violent things. Refuse Thanksgiving.

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