This article was originally published at Truthout under the title “The Future is Indigenous: Decolonizing Thanksgiving” and is reprinted here with permission.
In 2015, a video meme circulated prior to Thanksgiving, featuring YouTube personality Franchesca Ramsey humorously breaking down the actual history of the holiday. A wet blanket to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner, Ramsey repudiates one by one the many sanitized Thanksgiving myths promoted in elementary schools, including that the pilgrims and Native Americans were “like, besties.” It’s a funny and informative clip that challenges normative assumptions about the holiday, analyzes how the US came to celebrate it every year and raises awareness about the brutality of conquest on the Native peoples of this continent.
I’m a fan of Ramsey, but something nagged me about the clip and its apparent popularity among my social media networks. One thing the video didn’t correct was the perception that Native Americans are largely “extinct” (a problematic, colonial designation that continues to be used on Indigenous peoples, despite it being more applicable to plants and non-human animals). Ramsey notes that Thanksgiving became popular in the 19th century after “we fought and killed all the Native Americans.” It stuck with me, that line: “We fought and killed all the Native Americans.”
The idea that Native Americans are all dead is a powerful one. I know this because I teach Native American and Indigenous Studies at the college level. Students come to my classes knowing very little about Native Americans, but almost always speaking of Native Americans in the past tense. I work to combat that perception in each and every class, but I see that my students sometimes have difficulty reconciling what they learn in my classes with what they have learned before. This is true despite the fact that I am Native Hawaiian and speak often about my own experiences and research, and that at least a handful of my students are Native American themselves.
The difficulty is not an individual failure to absorb the class material, but a symptom of living in the United States and experiencing the ongoing perpetuation of anti-Indigenous ideologies that are built into this nation’s foundation.
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This Thanksgiving, in the midst of the Donald Trump era, you may have a lot of uncomfortable but urgent things to talk about at your family dinner tables, including misogyny, sexual violence against women, white supremacy and rage, anti-Blackness, xenophobia and empire. In a significant sense, all of those structural violences are bound up with settler colonialism in the United States.
Settler colonialism is the social, political and economic system that Europeans brought with them to this continent that turns land into profit, dispossessing Native peoples from the land through forced removals, military massacres, genocide, sterilization and forced assimilation (among other tactics). Indigenous people have long recognized that this is an ongoing process, not one discretely contained within a historical period.
Settler colonialism requires an ongoing violence against Native American people. Many narratives obscure this fact, however, by speaking of this violence as occurring in the distant past and in some mythical place (e.g. “the Wild West”) or erasing it altogether (as in romantic stories about Native and settler friendship). As a result, many people wrongly understand settler colonialism as something we have progressed beyond or something that never seriously existed in the first place.
If, like Ramsey, you want to somehow discuss with your parents, aunts, children and others how to rethink Thanksgiving and this country’s violent relationship to Native Americans more broadly, I offer here some suggestions drawn from my teaching as to how to do so without reproducing the idea that Native Americans are no longer around.
Some students come to my classes with the desire to learn about either “Native American culture” or “the Indigenous people who used to live here.” I quickly disabuse them of the idea that there is a singular Native American culture. I tell them there are 567 federally recognized Native American tribes today, and hundreds more who are unrecognized. I tell them California Indians still live in California; that despite the Hollywood depiction of Native Americans as all living in teepees and wearing headdresses, those cultural objects are generally only used by Native Americans from the Midwest Plains region (and only in certain contexts). I make it clear in the first lecture that my courses are neither conventional history nor anthropology classes. In the tradition of Ethnic Studies and Native American Studies since their inception in the late 1960s at San Francisco State and Berkeley, my teaching unabashedly centers the political struggles in which Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples have long engaged.
History and culture are, of course, part of those struggles. But my class is different in the sense that studying culture can be easy for non-Indigenous peoples because if it’s about “culture,” then it doesn’t have anything to do with you. It can be sampled and appreciated, and left. That ease of consuming culture is particularly unsettling when we recognize that cultural traditions are often not easily kept by Indigenous peoples, who have to work hard to ensure dance, language, food and other cultural traditions survive through ongoing attempts to repress them.
Further, my class is not only about culture or history because my class is also about non-Indigenous peoples; it is about how this country is a settler colonial nation, and not just in the past, but today. It is about how Indigenous peoples are working daily not just to stave off ongoing settler colonial violence, but also to bring into being different ways of living in the world.
Contemporary Indigenous cultural and political movements (including Idle No More and #NoDAPL) model for us how we all might go about restoring relationships with the land we live on and with the Indigenous peoples who have deep genealogies and knowledge about that land.
If you want to acknowledge a different Thanksgiving story, start with the land beneath your feet. Wherever you are in North America, you are on Indigenous land, even if the Indigenous peoples have long since been removed. If you don’t know whose land you’re living on, find out, and be prepared to unlearn the stories you may take for granted.
When I taught cstudents on Cahuilla land in Riverside, California, my classes began with the brutal history of conquest and settler colonialism in California. The Spanish mission system of the late 18th and early 19th centuries effectively enslaved California Indians and forced them to build the missions that are now romanticized.
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In elementary school, most of those students had to complete a fourth-grade “mission project,” which involves building a model mission, often out of sugar cubes. They told me that if their teachers mentioned California Indians at all, it was to say that California Indians and mission padres were friends. It was usually news to them that California Indians were the ones who built the missions and that that labor was forced. Missions, as Deborah Miranda’s beautiful memoir Bad Indians demonstrates, were prisons for California Indians.
It is even more of a shock for most students to learn about the realities of the Gold Rush. One of the first laws passed by the state of California (“Act for the Government and Protection of Indians,” 1850) set in place a terrifying system whereby white settlers could effectively indenture any Indian not already indentured by another white settler, in part through outlawing Indian vagrancy and allowing white settlers to take in orphaned Indian children as labor.
We sit with all of this history and its ongoing erasure. While it is difficult to confront the fact that multiple forms of Indian slavery and genocide built California, we also marvel and take inspiration from the fact that California Indians, like Indigenous peoples everywhere, survived.
That is the major component missing from Ramsey’s video.
It is important to acknowledge the history of settler colonialism, but it’s also crucial to recognize Indigenous survival, or you risk perpetuating the very myths that settler colonialism disseminates. Despite the naturalization of what is now the United States, on a different and more significant scale, this is still Indigenous land, and Indigenous people are still here.
Around Thanksgiving, I highlight for my students the ongoing life of the Wampanoag, whose ancestors were the actual Native Americans who saved the pilgrims. I ask my students to tell their families about the truly amazing Wampanaog language revitalization underway because of the work of Jessie Little Doe Baird, who has brought their language back to life despite it previously being thought “extinct.”
My class has also repeatedly discussed and gathered inspiration from Standing Rock, where thousands gathered to ally with the Lakota in their fight to protect the Missouri River from the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. We are attentive to the ways that the struggle at Standing Rock is not simply an environmental issue, but a matter of Indigenous people insisting on their right to be responsible for their traditional homelands, of which the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is a small fraction.
We work to recognize the similar work that is happening in California, too. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, various sacred sites have been destroyed through development, including an Ohlone shellmound burial site at the site of what is now the Emeryville Bay Street shopping mall. Every Black Friday after Thanksgiving, Ohlone leaders organize a protest to remind shoppers that the mall desecrates Ohlone ancestors.
As many have said before me, Standing Rock is everywhere. Contribute what you have to offer to the cause at Standing Rock, and also find out what contemporary struggles Indigenous peoples in your region are leading.
Indigenous movements to protect life are connected, across North America and beyond. It fills me with pride and aloha to see Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) who have fought to protect Mauna Kea (a sacred mountain on Hawaii Island) from the construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope travel to Standing Rock to offer their solidarity.
Indigenous people survive because, despite settler colonial myths that place us in the past, we have always known that we live in the future. Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada has written powerfully on this point: “The future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years. You cannot do otherwise when you rely on the land and sea to survive.”
If you want to shake up your family’s belief in the Thanksgiving myth this year, do so in a way that acknowledges Indigenous life today and into the future.
“Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday”, by Taylor Payer
One Word- Episode 27: Thanksgiving (Native Americans), by WatchCut Video
We Still Live Here — Âs Nutayuneân (film), Anne Makepeace, director
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Standing Rock Syllabus, by NYC Stands With Standing Rock
“In Which We Establish That There Was a Genocide Against Native Americans…”, by Cutcha Risling Baldy
Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, by Deborah Miranda
Native Appropriations, by Adrienne Keene
“Not Murdered, Not Missing: Rebelling Against Colonial Gender Violence”, by Leanne Simpson
“We Live in the Future, Come Join Us”, by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada.
Maile Arvin is a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar and an assistant professor of Gender Studies and History at the University of Utah.
[Feature Image: Two Indigenous people stand outside as the person on the left prepares the face of the individual on the right with painted tribal symbols. Source: Indigenous Peoples’ Thanksgiving Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island 2013 by Patricia Montes Gregory for Flickr]