To some Native American peoples, it’s a “day of mourning”; how can we still practice Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude?
Today, many of us celebrate a day of thanks, joining with friends and family for the warm feelings that can come with sharing a meal together. Thanksgiving as a yearly holiday helps reinforce gratitude as a practice. Reminding ourselves of what we are grateful for provides any number of benefits. In multiple studies, gratitude has been shown to improve psychological well-being, physical health, and interpersonal relationships.1
What’s problematic is the myth that surrounds the origins of that First Thanksgiving. We can acknowledge this history while reaping the benefits of current practices.
In this blog post, we (Carole and Jean) describe what we are especially grateful for this Thanksgiving. But first, let’s place Thanksgiving in a more accurate historical context than is commonly taught.
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian explains the myth about the origins of Thanksgiving often taught to schoolchildren:
The First Thanksgiving is often portrayed as a friendly harvest festival where Pilgrims and generic, nameless "Indians" came together to eat and give thanks. In reality, the assembly of the Wampanoag Peoples and the English settlers in 1621 had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace.
The Wampanoag Peoples had a long political history dealing with other Native Nations before the English arrived. The Wampanoag shared their land, food, and knowledge of the environment with the English. Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving. However, cooperation was short lived, as the English continued to attack and encroach upon Wampanoag lands in spite of their agreements. Interactions with Europeans and Americans brought accelerated and often devastating changes to American Indian cultures.2
Given the anguish of this history, how do today’s Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? Tribal citizen Dennis W. Zotigh describes it succinctly as "a day of mourning."3 Zotigh is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Winter Clan. To him and others, the day is a reminder of genocide and the resilience of Native peoples.
In his book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,4 David Silverman vividly describes what it feels like to be in school, as a Wampanoag descendent, being asked to participate in Thanksgiving Day history lessons.
Wampanoag adults have memories of being a kid during Thanksgiving season, sitting in school, feeling invisible and having to wade through the nonsense that teachers were shoveling their way. They felt like their people's history as they understood it was being misrepresented. They felt that not only their classes, but society in general was making light of historical trauma which weighs around their neck like a millstone.
Yet, although Thanksgiving Day may stir up bitter and grim reminders of what has been taken, gratitude can still help foster resilience among us all, including some Native peoples. As the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian explains, “Giving thanks is a longstanding and central tradition among most Native groups that is still practiced today.5”
While honoring this history, what can we still derive from the holiday? Bottom line: we can celebrate a time of giving thanks, even while remembering the painful history that yielded us this holiday. We can hold the paradox.
How might we do that? Turns out, we get to choose. Ideally, we hold differences with family and friends in suspension and allow ourselves to be warmed by their presence as we break bread together [blog post #27: Awkward conversations: What do you say at the dinner table?]. We marshal our better instincts to feed those without family or resources. We donate to charities. Many of us get a four-day break from work (and more retail companies are giving their employees a day off). Best of all, we stop to consider the presence of gratitude in our lives.
In that spirit, two of us at Leading Consciously would like to share some of what we’re grateful for.
This Thanksgiving, I want to offer a personal testament of gratitude.
What a strange thing for me to be grateful now, of all times. My husband died Oct. 30, one month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I grieve him greatly and miss him daily, and I know this is going to be a long haul.
“If you cannot be grateful for what you have received, then be thankful for what you have been spared.” — Yiddish proverb
But I’m grateful he was spared a lot of suffering. I’m grateful for the response of my friends and family, which taught me the meaning of unconditional love. I am overwhelmed, inundated, flooded with inchoate gratitude: for my children, who showed up while still grieving the death of their father from the same disease. For those who stopped by to offer hugs, brought food, provided information, wrote notes. For the friend who slept in her camper in the driveway overnight in case I needed her. For the four friends who stood at bedside with me while he peacefully slipped away. For the many who let me cry and made me laugh. And for a community willing to revisit their own struggles with grief and loss in order to hold me up.
“There is always, always, always something to be thankful for.” — Unknown
To say I’m grateful for 19 years with my husband is a given. To say I’m grateful for my community is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. This Thanksgiving, in spite of everything, I will be giving thanks.
This and every Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the resilience and generosity of the human spirit. Here’s a sprinkling of this year’s examples:
Around the world, people are helping others get through the unthinkable. I see this every day on the news, YouTube, and social media. While the media focus on the suffering, I also notice the acts of caring and mutual support.
The 2022 midterms were a delightful relief. Enough people around the country placed caring as a priority that the results weren’t the predicted disaster.
I was pleasantly surprised that people who are my political opposites chose to engage with me anyway [blog post #103: In today's Tower of Babel, can we even agree on what social justice means?] and one is continuing the conversation on Messenger. We may have different visions of the country, but we still can manage to learn more about one another.
Speaking more personally, I am surrounded by people willingly showing caring and support toward me personally and toward those I care about. In the end, for me, it’s about living a life full of love and meaning.
We at Leading Consciously wish for you and yours: love, acceptance, justice, peace, and gratitude.
Questions to ask yourself
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1 Walsh, L.C., Regan, A., Twenge, J.M. et al. What is the Optimal Way to Give Thanks? Comparing the Effects of Gratitude Expressed Privately, One-to-One via Text, or Publicly on Social Media. Affec Sci (2022); Regan, A., Walsh, L.C. & Lyubomirsky, S. Are Some Ways of Expressing Gratitude More Beneficial Than Others? Results From a Randomized Controlled Experiment. Affec Sci (2022).
2 National Museum of the American Indian, S. (n.d.). "Rethinking Thanksgiving celebrations: Native perspectives on Thanksgiving." Native Knowledge 360º.
3 Shen, M. (2021). What is Thanksgiving to Indigenous people? 'A day of mourning'. USA Today.
4 Silverman, David (2019). This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. Bloomsbury Publishing.
5 Shen, M. (2021). What is Thanksgiving to Indigenous people? 'A day of mourning'. USA Today.