It’s that time of year again. Step into any retail outlet and one is immediately confronted with a plethora of pumpkin products and leafy, decorative centerpieces for the dinner table. Families gather in groups, big and small, to engage in some form of “giving thanks.” Gluttonous feasting and football are hallmarks of this annual, federal holiday that finds its roots back in the 1600s and the conventional trope of English pilgrims in Massachusetts. Less talked about, though, and even actively suppressed in some cases, are the ways that Thanksgiving — in material and symbolic practice — is yet another avenue for the distortion of colonial history through the elevation and circulation of settler memory and nostalgia. While often valorized and rationalized as a time of celebration characterized by the benign coming together of friends and family, it is also a holiday that actively elides the genocidal violence that has made the US. It is a state-sanctioned endorsement of the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their lived experiences and resistance efforts, both past and present.
The celebratory zeal of the day is part of the state’s machinery that allows us to abdicate political responsibility and turn a blind eye to the persistent colonial violence.
Stated otherwise: This holiday, like clockwork, ushers in more of the colonial same.
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As a public scholar and educator who thinks deeply about colonial histories and contemporary realities, the widespread and normalized festivities during “Thanksgiving” have always made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. In particular, I’ve been troubled by the way this “holiday” reproduces notions of American benevolence and innocence, reinforcing the idea that the United States was born out of justice, liberty and goodwill instead of war, murder, slavery and the vicious seizure and occupation of Indigenous homelands (the real story). Thanksgiving tells the tale of peaceful settlement, of a conciliatory arrival at coexistence with the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. The celebratory zeal of the day reinforces collective and shared meaning of these nationalistic sentiments by keeping an imagined version of the United States alive in the hearts and minds of millions of white settlers and their descendants who, unquestionably, reap the material benefits from the immense harm that has been done, and continues to be done, to Indigenous lands and bodies. It is part of the state’s machinery that allows us to abdicate political responsibility and turn a blind eye to the persistent colonial violence that is so clearly evidenced in the criminalization and incarceration of Indigenous peoples, the ongoing dismissal and violation of treaty rights, the encroachment of extractive industries onto Indigenous homelands and sacred sites, and the rampant gender violence that has become part of the everyday realities for so many Indigenous women, children and youth — egregious violence that seems to exist outside the bounds of the law.
Thanksgiving is the symbolic embodiment of the story white Americans like to tell themselves about who they are and what they stand for.
Contrary to the well-rehearsed response that one often faces when offering an intellectual and political critique of Thanksgiving, it is not simply a “holiday.” Like Columbus Day and the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving is the symbolic embodiment of the story white Americans like to tell themselves about who they are and what they stand for. And this is what I tell my students when they ask me why I call for the critical interrogation of this so-called holiday.
For the past few months, I have been teaching an undergraduate/graduate seminar in the Global Studies program at The New School, my home university. It is a course that was designed to work in purposeful opposition to the unfailing denial of colonial history and ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples in the present that is so pervasive throughout the mainstream education systems (both secondary and post-secondary) and media outlets in the United States. In many ways, it serves as an antithesis to Thanksgiving itself. Grounded in a version of revolutionary red pedagogy advanced by Quechua scholar Sandy Grande, the class takes students on a journey through competing versions about the “truth” of the United States. It does so by excavating knowledge that has been deliberately subjugated, and by asking essential and difficult questions that destabilize what we think we know about the places where we build our lives.
Throughout the evolution of this course, my students have faced unsettling realities — including developing an awareness of their own complicity in reproducing colonial relations of domination. Week after week, students have collectively read the scholarship of Indigenous writers: a revolutionary move in its own right given the whiteness of the curriculum in most institutions of higher education. Week after week, they have systematically analyzed the colonial founding of what we now call the United States of America through anti-colonial accounts of history and politics. Week after week, they have pushed themselves, each other, and me, to reject depictions of Indigenous peoples as remnants of a bygone past and instead view them through the frame of the active presence. They are now recognizing them as leaders in a global fight for decolonization, freedom and environmental justice worldwide. They are coming to see them as communities of Nations who have been maintaining their own kinship relations and ways of being while living under conditions of violent occupation. They view them as the First Peoples of the territory many of my students call home. These discussions, not surprisingly, have also been characterized by the enduring question of how to actively organize alongside Indigenous peoples — responsibly and ethically, in ways that lift up Indigenous social movements for revolutionary change as opposed to co-opting or working against them, often without even knowing it.
This has not been an easy process for my students, nor is their (re)education complete. But it is a step in the right direction. More so, the collective work we have begun to do serves as an example of what is possible when we step back and adopt a more radical politics when it comes to challenging the social and political meaning of holidays like Thanksgiving. It gives us some sense of how we can tackle the intensely racist backdrop against which this “holiday” has emerged, and to think critically about what it would mean to support political sovereignty and self-determination for the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, upon whose land all of us reside.