Is it okay to say… Happy Thanksgiving?
By Mo Edjlali, Mindful Leader Founder and CEO
Growing up in elementary school we would all hear this story of Thanksgiving, it goes something like this -
A long time ago when the pilgrims first arrived in America they were struggling to get settled in. As winter approached they feared for their survival and were facing possible starvation. Then they meet the Indians. They formed a friendship with the Indians based on mutual respect and sharing of food and resources. They became friends and allies and embraced a spirit of sharing and gratitude.
Sound familiar? The truth is far from this as more and more people have come to realize. Indigenous people were horribly abused in every way possible, genocide, rape, enslavement, and for centuries. This false story continues to be perpetuated in the mass media and our culture.
I am no expert on native American history but at an early age, I questioned my teachers and school history books. For those who are not familiar with my background - I was born in Iran and came to the States at an early age. In school, and in the media, they did not speak truthfully of my native country or culture so I learned to question everything. I picked up the Autobiography of Malcolm X in middle school and was inspired to challenge what I was told and speak up. So much so that in my freshman year of high school - after a heated debate with my history teacher on American Middle-Eastern intervention she shamed me in front of my classmates and said “if you don’t like it here go back to your country.”
I persisted. In my mid-twenties I read Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States and was touched by what I learned of the atrocities that were committed against Native Americans among other marginalized groups throughout the creation and rise of this country. I saw the hypocrisy of Columbus Day and support the movement for Indigenous People’s Day. There is still a great deal more to be done, and it's good to see more and more people coming to better understand our complex history and work toward healing.
Last year we shared an article 5 Great Gratitude Resources for Thanksgiving. Every year around this time with Thanksgiving in the air we try to inspire gratitude, appreciation, and community.
With that intent in mind I was really taken aback by the comment that one of our readers left:
“I realize Thanksgiving is a complex holiday for some cloaked in a dominant message of gratitude and celebration of family and friends from the lens of white supremacy and privilege. But the truth of the matter is any Thanksgiving message that ignores the pain of Indigenous communities whose stolen land these observance occur on, continues the invisibility of millions of Native people whose ancestors extended the right hand of fellowship to white people, only to have that generosity met with racism, colonialism, mass genocide, ethnic cleansing, almost complete assimilation and displacement from their culture.
You and your organization have benefited from these atrocities that have provided you sustenance and income. Would it be too much of an ask to reckon with the reality of this western/Eurocentric ideology that has benefited from these hate crimes?”
Click here to read the full comment.
My reaction to first reading this comment was anger. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I have not in years considered the pilgrim / Indian story that we were told as kids in my celebration of Thanksgiving. It was not something that I thought was an issue. And here my innocent desire to share gratitude and joy was met with what felt like a condemnation. Like I had done something wrong or shameful. “lens of white supremacy and privilege.” “In the spirit of moving forward, don’t you think it is time to unlearn, deseed and banish these practices that perpetuate racism, colonization, oppression, and cultural appropriation.”
I felt defensive, and like I was being talked down to. Did I do something wrong? Was I insensitive?
I’d like to think I’m a sensitive and thoughtful person. I don’t consider myself a white supremacist, or a colonizer, in fact, I’ve always seen myself as the colonized and at the receiving end of bigotry. And there was much that didn’t make sense to my immigrant parents, customs, traditions, and holidays that had a heavy western/Christian root that we were unfamiliar with. And then there was Thanksgiving, a holiday that we could understand and get behind.
Dear friend who left this comment, thank you for helping me see your pain and understand you better. I’m sorry that this holiday that I cherish and the way that we talked about it is a source of pain for you. My intention was to share my joy and inspire gratitude. I’m sorry and I hope that you can see and understand me better now. We are not enemies, please do not make assumptions about me or my organization. Allow me to share in a conversation where neither of us is a victim or villain and let's find ways forward where we can better understand and better respect one another.
I believe in the rights and the need to openly acknowledge and work towards healing the pain and atrocities committed against the indigenous people of the Americas. I’d also like to figure out how to celebrate Thanksgiving in a non-offensive way and to hold up the values of family and gratitude.
In the spirit of finding ways to better see and understand one another, please share any thoughts you have - is Thanksgiving a holiday that brings you joy? Or one that reminds you of atrocities that have gone un-repented? Is there a way we can celebrate together while including those who have been hurt by the way this holiday has been represented?
During this time of year, you may find yourself in similar situations. It's not easy to share our pain gracefully and I’m come up with a few simple tips to help me that might be of help to you:
- Shaming people will shut them down, they will not be open to your message
- Not everyone understands or feels my pain - help them by sharing my direct experience
- Beware of righteous cruelty - I can not demand that others “do the right thing” just because I think it's the right thing to do
- What is my real intention? Am I looking for healing and connection? Or to be right / prove someone else is wrong?
- When I’m coming from a place of pain and anger, I’m more likely to cause pain and anger
9 Ways to Decolonize and Honor Native Peoples on Thanksgiving
Is celebrating Thanksgiving disrespectful to Indigenous people?
Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday
Why wouldn't it be okay to say Happy Thanksgiving? It is one of the few holidays that transcends religion. Of course, I am happy to say Happy Thanksgiving, even though ours was last month. :-)
Thanks for the reflection and for sharing this. You’re doing your part spreading awareness on a topic that many of us may not be able to see or consider due to biases or simply not knowing. I believe in the spirit of Thanksgiving we should celebrate human potential for connection, gratitude, and love - debunked from any specific event, and in that case it includes all humans.
I’m Iraq living in the Middle East so have no right to speak for any indigenous people, but as a human who has dealt with trauma, warfare, and the struggle of constantly being marginalized I can speak for the common pains as well as the common potential.
Thank you for educating me on this too 😊
reflecting on the thanksgiving article I thought to add my comments. Although the US has created the myth about Thanksgiving, and hopefully by now that has gone the way of Columbus Day (although admittedly, i am not in the elementary schools and neither are my grandchildren so i'm not 100% sure that myth truly has died), i see it more as a time of celebration for the bountiful harvest we small and home farmers have gathered as the winter sets in here in the north. It's a harvest celebration and one we can share our bounty with others. It's a gratitude time for that harvest. that to me is beyond oppression. Yet it's also important since the myth may continue to exist to recognize the US's history and be grateful for the indigenous peoples still here willing to share their wisdom of medicinal foods, and how to deal with climate change..
Be Thankful but Keep it In Perspective
Envision for a moment that Germany won World War II. They in turn created a holiday that celebrated this feat and ignored the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism. This holiday would be centered on families giving thanks for one of the biggest human rights travesties in world history. Businesses would close during this national observance. Schools would empty as generations of students are indoctrinated with the lessons of this national achievement. Government offices would shut down and mile after mile of city blocks would fill up with revelers marching in parades. Imagine how Jewish people would feel.
This is how most American Indians/Alaska Natives feel about Thanksgiving. They see it as a holiday that took advantage of their gratefulness as our country’s first citizens and in turn were rewarded with land theft, extermination from disease, violence and near total destruction through forced assimilation.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being thankful. There is something very wrong about celebrating a holiday that does not contain one ounce of truthfulness and historical accuracy.
I think other countries have more authentic Thanksgiving celebrations. China celebrates the birth of the moon. Greece recognizes agriculture. Egypt acknowledges fertility. Indonesia and Japan commemorate the significance of rice. Korea remembers the souls of their ancestors.
I realize Thanksgiving is here to stay. It would be difficult to undo a national holiday that was introduced during the Lincoln Presidency and formally codified during the Truman Administration. Can’t we at least celebrate it in a different way?
Here is how most American Indians/Alaska Natives celebrate Thanksgiving: (1) From a feel good history to a feel bad history; (2) Instead of one day of the year to every day of the year; (3) From being religiously ordained to a day of mourning; (4) Instead of shopping till you drop buying only what you need and (4) From being ethnocentric to being self-reflective.
The question remains. Why does this country continue to celebrate a national holiday that does not honor its first citizens? The answer can be found in the behavior of bullies. It is difficult for a bully to change their stripes because to do so would acknowledge there is some value in their victims.
In the meantime, American Indians/Alaska Natives will cover. Unable to bring their full selves to a celebration that mocks them year after year but yet thankful we have survived another year of bullying.
We are all indigenous people. I for one am Polish, and ever since my childhood have hated the Polish jokes. they hurt. so what. My son is disabled and was bullied and laughed at in school so what. we can go on and on about all the hurtful things that have happened to us now and in the past, but if you are really into mindfulness, then let it go and find less anger in your life and more joy in the here and now. you can do this by being thankful, and grateful for all those in your lives who love you.
Thanks to you Mo for your perspective, and to all who provided commentary. I find that one of the most beautiful and rewarding results of my mindfulness practice has been becoming self and other aware, and learning to be conscious of self management. We all have suffering within this life, no one easier than the other-simply different. Humans have mistreated each other from the beginning of records to reflect it, and of course the telling of each event is the specific perspective of the author(s). We continue to see the anger, hatred, bias, unconsciousness all around us…..my commitment in this life is to honor all, to become more conscious of the ways I am not, and to hold space for others to feel safe. May we all learn to live life with ease and to hold space for all opinions without judgment on either side.
This message had me so captivated and curious the whole way through. As always Moe your honesty, sincerity and sheer care and compassion comes through in your response. In my mindfulness practice and spiritual prayer time I have learned to simply pray for love, forgiveness and peace to enter the hearts of all those mistreated and struggling past and present. Because I am not educated enough on this particular topic of how and why we celebrate Thanksgiving except what I was taught in elementary school, which over the years has become very small. The celebration of Thanksgiving, to give thanks with those we are blessed to be with that day is how I look at it. Wherever I am that day, I choose to pass the message of love and thanksgiving to everyone I meet. Not for this day but every day. Sometimes I just laugh and say we need to celebrate Thanksgiving every day spreading love, goodness, forgiveness and compassion.
However, now I am really going to go to my local library and educate myself a bit more on this topic just to know the truth, but for me it won't change how I look at or celebrate the Joy of Thanksgiving.
Adding a PS to my earlier comment: let's petition our (un) responsive government to rename the holiday Thanksgiving Harvest Holiday. After all, it only became a federal holiday in 1941. Maybe by marketing it more authentically, it can start a new narrative.
I want to thank you for the neutrality in this messaging. I must admit that I am exhausted hearing people apologize and/or express guilt for actions caused by others in the past. I am an indigenous person and just want society to get to a place where we live in the now. Our past is not our today— it’s our mentality that makes it so toxic in today’s present.
I will never justify atrocities but I will justify that this is the cycle of life— not everything is perfect nor will it be. Each individual has to take responsibility for their present life and try to do the best that they can. By doing so we may be able to obtain collective consciousness but even then it doesn’t mean that we are perfect. Every person and/or group of people have a story to tell. Whether it’s good or bad— we don’t always know. Let go, stop thinking negatively, sit with your hands, breathe, put your hands close to your heart and embrace infinite possibilities. We don’t have to point fingers, we don’t have to be victims anymore— if we learn to mind our own business and take care of our own inventory—- perhaps then we can have enough stock to share with others.
It is easy to be saddened by such messaging but today, right now, I take my power back and declare “you only hurt yourself when you carry such judgment and disdain in your soul!” Everyone is doing the best that they can do with whatever mental or physical resources they were given to in life.
So, I say Happy Thanksgiving because it’s great to be happy and joyous no matter what day it is and giving thanks is not only a holiday— but a state of mind for every day of the year. So, if we have to have a holiday so that some people can be reminded of the grace then so be it. You create your reality so, please stop taking away the good intentions of so many others— believe it or not, innocence exists and it’s beautiful to blissful.
Thanks for this article Mo. Thought-provoking and vulnerable, real. The urge to punish and castigate the supposed 'white privileged class' is growing tired in my books. There's no doubt I've had privilege in my world because of fitting with the dominant story in Canada of being middle-class and white. It's been an unconscious privilege until recently, and for that awareness I am most thankful. It helps me steer a new course in my interactions with others. But I wonder how the indigenous of all our world's countries, all of which have been invaded and subjugated by other countries/cultures over the centuries, actually feel about being made symbols of subjugation, genocide, and other horrors. We all, in one way or another, have been displaced from our original cultures. The land has been stolen, true, but it can't be repatriated again, ever, in the same way. We are all together now, and respecting and acknowledging each other (and our differences) has to be the way forward. This happens in practical, day-to-day interactions, not in politically woke statements. There's no doubt there have been atrocious transgressions on the part of the 'invaders'. The best we can do now is be aware of our own current tendencies to 'invade' others with hurtful actions/words out of feeling hurt ourselves. It takes mindfulness to tread this middle ground - impartial but not indifferent.
Thanks for all the wonderful comments and shares, through dialogue and understanding I hope we can find ways to acknowledge each other's suffering while finding ways to celebrate shared values.
The Truth About Thanksgiving
For American Indians/Alaska Natives, the traditional “Thanksgiving” federal government holiday is very different from the celebration drilled into my head by my elementary school teachers. It is day of grief and mourning. We see it as a holiday that took advantage of our gratefulness as our country’s first citizens and in turn were rewarded with land theft, extermination from disease, violence and near total destruction through forced assimilation.
For many Native people, Thanksgiving is a day to:
· Pray that the Creator will help people understand the reality about a holiday that does not contain one ounce of truthfulness and historical accuracy.
· Protest the commercialization of a holiday supposedly based on being thankful.
· Help those who like Native people have fallen like the homeless, the hungry, the orphan, the prisoner, the refugee and the forgotten.
· Honor the ancestors of Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag Indians whose right hand of fellowship to a group of visitors was met with distrust and suspicion.
It is day to appreciate the contributions of Native people to a group of settlers that absence this assistance, our country would not be the shining light on a hill for the entire world to see.
The fact of the matter is Native people died so this country could flourish. They are still dying for this land since they serve in the military at higher per capita rates than any racial group.
If you want to be thankful during this season of thanks, thank the Native forefathers and foremothers who are responsible for the true message of Thanksgiving. “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
It is with this spirit of generosity and charity that you should place your understanding for a true and honest "Thanksgiving."
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