I have a confession to make—a dirty little secret that I can no longer keep a secret. I’m Indigenous and I’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving. There, I said it! If you’re wondering why this is such a big deal, know that Indigenous people have a very fraught relationship with Thanksgiving. Why? It’s no secret that Native American people long predated European settlers in North America, and the so-called “peaceful” dinner between the pilgrims and the Natives is one that has been greatly exaggerated. For many in the Indigenous community, the annual holiday actually serves as a harmful reminder of how their land was stolen from them during colonization, how many of their people were killed, and how their culture was almost entirely stripped from them. One can understand why Native people today don’t want to break bread and eat turkey: What, in fact, is there to be thankful for?
This year, however, I’m finally choosing not to be thankful, too.
Growing up on Nipissing First Nation—my traditional territory in northern Ontario, Canada—my family always celebrated Thanksgiving. My mom is one of 18 siblings, and our annual tradition would be to gather as a big, crazy, Ojibwe family for a Thanksgiving meal at our grandmother Leda’s house, which served as the meeting spot for the whole motley crew. Given the sheer volume of people, I remember often eating Thanksgiving dinner on the ground, sitting cross-legged among my many cousins (seats at the table are reserved for the elders, obviously—they also got first pass at the food). On the menu would be all the traditional Thanksgiving dishes: turkey, mashed potatoes, turnip, boiled carrots, huge pots of gravy. One year, my dad even cooked a 40-pound turkey for the entire family, a record. But there would always be some Indigenous flavor on tap, too: instead of dinner rolls, we had my auntie Joanie’s epic bannock. Moose meat pies were also omnipresent, though I never partook in that dish. (I’m a Native who doesn’t enjoy wild meat—a sin!).
Because Thanksgiving was something that our family always registered, I never thought twice about how ironic it was: a bunch of Indigenous people basically celebrating the history of their own suffering. Doubly ironic: When I grew older and moved to the U.S., my family, who followed the Canadian calendar and had celebrated the Thanksgiving in October, often had to re-do it for me when I came home in November. When I finally learned about the problematic history of Thanksgiving, the holiday had become so routine in our family that I didn’t bother to question it. Even after my grandmother Leda passed on, and our family stopped having these gigantic feasts—at some point, they just became impossible to organize—my parents, my sister, and I still continued celebrating it. It became a pattern, something we just did. It was mostly always about the food, because who doesn’t want to induce a Tryptophan coma? I still drool at the thought.
This year, however, I approached the holiday differently. For one, my family is in Canada while I’m in New York, so celebrating it with them would mean flying across the country—which no one should do this year. But COVID restrictions aside, something also changed in me this year: I realized that I actively don’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving. I’ve spent far too long being passive about things that I don’t feel right about.
Call it a 2020 introspective moment, but I’ve smartened up: Why should I celebrate a holiday that is basically serving up a giant middle finger to my culture on a platter? No amount of savory gravy can distract me from that now. Despite all the downsides to this year, it’s also been a serious wake-up call to many: the ongoing protests around racism and conversations surrounding cultural education have made me rethink my own actions and experiences as an Indigenous person. And all this time alone at home has not only made me think about how to be a better ally to others, but also how to be better at being Indigenous. How do I connect more with my heritage on a daily basis? How can I better support Indigenous brands or artists? Celebrating Thanksgiving simply doesn’t fit into this new outlook.
Starting now, and well into the future, I actually plan on transferring the festive energy of Thanksgiving to Indigenous People’s Day on October 11. Because if I’m going to celebrate something with a big hoopla dinner, it’s going to be our resiliency as Indigenous people—not because of some pilgrims, who were literally the rudest dinner guests of all time. I have yet to bring this new plan up with my parents, but seeing how I never make it home for Canadian Thanksgiving anyway, I can’t say that will be that big of a shock to them. Plus, my mom is full-blooded Native—she’ll get on board.
As for this week, after a careful period of quarantine, I’ll be ringing in Thanksgiving with a friend, cooking up some sort of fabulous meal that includes anything but turkey. We’re thinking a nice branzino, a rosemary and garlic mash, a crudités platter—hell, maybe even a cheesecake. It’s less of a Thanksgiving, more of a Friendsgiving. Or let’s call it an anti-Thanksgiving: an excuse to hang out, commiserate about this hellscape of a year, be sad, and drink far too much red wine.
And that’s something I am truly thankful for.