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Explainer

A Thanksgiving guide to indigenous justice

Resources for important holiday discussions with family and loved ones about race and justice

in Decolonization

Cover image: Elders from various nations gather near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline drill pad to hold a prayer ceremony. the group obtained access to the area due to a federal law which allows First Nations peoples to pray on federal land. | Josué Rivas | Originally published in Summit magazine


For many of us, Thanksgiving is an important time of coming together with family. But this day can also be an opportunity to face our collective histories and shift old stories. Thanksgiving is based on myths that hide and erase the genocide that this country is founded on. What would it mean to tell a different story; an honest story? This is the question that Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)—a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice—wants families with plenty to think about this year as we come together to spend time with one another; to remember that not all of us are so fortunate, and that indigenous people and people of color face increasing level of racism and injustice as a result of these and other colonial myths.

This Thanksgiving, it’s important for all families to have conversations about race and justice in Hawaiʻi and in America. These can be tough conversations, but they are conversations that are necessary if we want to break the silence about racial injustice and indigenous genocide. SURJ has created materials to help facilitate this discussion:

This year has been filled with an emboldening of white supremacy. But it has also seen more people joining into movements to create a better country and a better world. But we cannot expect that justice will ever come if we are not willing to face the injustices of our past and present with clear and honest discussion. Times when we are with family and friends during a holiday may be times we would prefer to turn away from these honest conversations. But these are some of the most potent times to touch people’s hearts—people who we love and trust, and who love and trust us. These moments can be fertile ground for lasting change.

SURJ believes in collective liberation—that none of us can be free until we end white supremacy. In the words of American civil rights activist, journalist and educator Anne Braden: “The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of white people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.”

Before engaging in these discussions, remember to drop shaming, blaming, and stereotypes: None of us are essentially bad, even while we also need to take responsibility for our actions and be honest about the legacies of our people. These conversations aren’t about proving yourself right. They are about interrupting racism and the silence that allows the status quo of colonialism to continue unchecked.

Our nervous systems can easily go into places of shut-down during these conversations. If you notice that happening in yourself or others, see if you can come back to the present moment and anything that supports the connection you have with each other. Be prepared to listen, especially when you don’t agree. Notice if you are just waiting to plan a response rather than listening, and try to shift into really listening.

Many people will not be reached with a framework of “white privilege” or “systems of oppression:” Use language and metaphors that are relatable, and not couched in jargon.

Find a stopping point: You are not likely to change someone’s world view in one sitting. End when the conversation is in a place of agreement, and revisit it again later.

Take care of yourself: Returning to breath, pausing, taking time as you need, and reaching out for support can all help expand your capacity to be fully present in these hard conversations.

Goal 1. Dispel foundational myths behind the holidays of Thanksgiving and Columbus Day

Native and non-native scholars tend to agree that although there was a feast in 1621, this did not begin a tradition of Thanksgiving. The first recorded “Thanksgiving” celebration occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to give thanks for “subduing the Pequots,” after Dutch and English mercenaries massacred over 700 Indigenous peoples during their Green Corn Dance in 1637.

European people coming to this land joined (willingly or not) in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We have to begin with this truth. We can build more authentic bonds with loved ones when we have tough conversations and don’t perpetrate dangerous lies and myths.

In reality, Thanksgiving is a day that celebrates a massacre of Indigenous peoples, not unity with Indigenous peoples. Many “Thanksgiving” celebrations took place in various locations throughout the colonies and at different times of the year, each celebrating a specific massacre carried out against the local Indigenous peoples of that area. President Washington unified the Thanksgiving celebrations to a single day, while President Lincoln first declared it a national holiday in 1863.

The Thanksgiving myth portrays a welcoming Native community desiring to share the bounty of their land. The “welcoming Indian” myth also provides a foil for the “savage Indian,” waging war upon poor settlers. It is a neat trick which simultaneously creates two kinds of Indigenous peoples—compassionate and noble allies to the struggling colony, or hostile and savage enemies of the settlers. “They” are now either good or bad. This process of making Indigenous peoples either passive “helpers” wanting to assimilate or dangerous savages is dehumanizing. It helps to justify displacement, land theft, genocide. There is nothing honoring about stereotypes and caricatures.

For a real conversation sparker to share with family and friends ahead of the holidays, here is an interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and you can find the “Suppressed Speech Of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag,” here on a blog maintained by Tupac Enrique (Nahuatl Izkaloteka).

Questions to ask: What stories have you heard or been taught about Thanksgiving? Where did you learn this history? Have you learned from and/or read Indigenous scholars? How do you think the myth and reality of Thanksgiving impacts Indigenous peoples today? How can changing the narrative be one important step toward establishing right relationship with Indigenous peoples? How can we come together with loved ones in ways that do not perpetrate these harmful lies?

Further readings and actions: Read more about the real history of Thanksgiving here. Find out if Indigenous peoples are working on changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in your town. Here is a map of states and cities that are doing just that. Get involved in or help initiate the work. Click here to find links to sample resolutions used by schools, cities, towns, and states to change to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Have conversations at your schools, places of employment, and faith communities about changing the names of these holidays to reflect our deeper values.

Goal 2. Know whose land you are on

The colonial project happens in a place. White settlers are taught the importance of private property, the names of towns, counties and the state. All of these are colonial reframings of Indigenous territories. Your school, the mall, your home and places of worship all sit upon occupied land. A critical step in disrupting settler colonialism is acknowledging this land as rightfully Indigenous territory. It is important to know exactly whose territory you are in. There are resources out there to educate yourself about the land you are occupying and its original inhabitants. Find out if the tribes or nations are still in that area. If not, find out why. Have they been forcefully relocated or pushed out in another way?

In order to bring about fundamental change in the U.S., we need to understand the real histories of this country. If we don’t bother to find out whose territories we are on and how we came to occupy this land, how can we say that we haven’t also missed out on knowledge and teachings of how to respect this land and other peoples that could be invaluable to us today?

Questions to ask: What feelings does it bring up to think about someone else having originally lived and cared for this land? How can our attachment to this area help us empathize with others’ attachment to this area? In what ways could we change our habits and behaviors that would put us in right relationship with those who were originally living on this land? Imagine if a foreign power rolled through here and kicked us out of our home, and sought to eliminate our people—wouldn’t that make you angry? Wouldn’t you want some kind of justice? Acknowledging whose land we are on is the least we can do to help heal these wounds.

Further readings and actions: It’s obvious here in Hawaiʻi, but for folks on the continent, here is one map of Indigenous Nations that you can use to uncover whose land your family might be living or gathering on.

Goal 3. Know your family’s history

Because whiteness is founded on the giving up of cultural identity in order to access privilege (comfort, safety, security), an essential part of how we shift it is by remembering, relearning and naming our histories and the places we come from.

We can still unite around current common experiences, while also acknowledging our differences and uniqueness in where we come from and who we are. This will give more space for all of us. If we feel into some of that pain, we will also have more capacity for joy and connection. We must seek to learn more about the past so that we can move well into the future.

Questions to ask: If your ancestors are from a colonizing country, what was your family’s connection to land, spiritual traditions, economies, before that country began colonizing other places? Does your family own land in the United States? If so, how did they come to acquire it?

Further readings and actions: The ongoing work of solidarity and joint struggle means building long term relationships with Indigenous communities and frontline struggles in your region. It means continuing to bring an awareness of whose land you’re on and how to be in right relationship with Indigenous peoples in everything you’re involved in. This means building power to force the state to respect treaties, and Indigenous Nations’ self-determination, working to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and for land return and reparations. Check out this creative campaign where members of Resource Generation door-knocked in solidarity with Poor Magazine’s “Stolen Land and Hoarded Resources Tour.” Check out this wealth redistribution campaign from Duwamish Solidarity Group in solidarity with the Duwamish Tribe.

Goal 4. Know where your water, heat, electricity and other resources come from

Lands that were relegated to Indigenous use under the reservation system are now resource colonies for the settler state. Pipelines are rammed through sovereign lands. Indigenous communities in the United States are among the hardest hit by the negative impacts of climate change because of the extractive projects and processing that take place on their lands. Extractive projects lead to increased violence against Indigenous women and children, due to men who live in transient “man camps.”Coal mining and burning, uranium mining and copper mining are just a few of the extractive projects that leave toxic legacies for generations. The profit from extraction on Native lands is rarely returned to the community that has paid the price in destruction of lands and sacred sites, damage to health and devastation of local economies and lifeways. Resource extraction and resource colonialism is at the root of climate chaos.

Colonization is not something bad that happened in the past, but an ongoing project. Corporate and government-backed resource extraction (colonialism) continue to threaten Indigenous peoples’ land bases, resources, waters, traditional foods, economies and forms of governance. Indigenous peoples experience disproportionate rates of unemployment, incarceration and violence. As we reckon with what Indigenous peoples face, we also must center the ways in which Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of protecting land, water, air, sacred places and knowledge, so that all of our future generations can have a home on which to survive and thrive.

Questions to ask: Where do our region’s water and resources come from? What environmental threats does our community face? What responsibility do we have to Indigenous peoples whose land bases are degraded so we might have cheap electricity, oil and water?

Further readings and actions: Divest your own money from banks supporting pipelines, prisons, and climate chaos. Engage in divestment movements and movements for just transitions off fossil fuels. Join Indigenous led struggles to protect land, water, resources, and self-determination. Link existing environmental movements to Indigenous led movements. Find a just transition toolkit here. Mazaska Talks Initiative is an Indigenous led divestment movement.

Goal 5. Understand what our churches have to do with justifying land theft

The U.S. system of land title is rooted in centuries old documents from the Vatican collectively known as The Doctrine of Discovery. The first papal bull (an edict from the Pope similar to a Presidential Order)  of the Doctrine is titled “Terra Nullius,” (1095 AD)  in which any land in which Christians do not live is declared “empty” and open to conquest. A later papal bull titled “Dum Diversas” (1452 AD)  gives Christian explorers “full and free power,... to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ,... and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and… appropriate realms…” While these documents were written centuries ago, the U.S. Supreme Court has cited the Doctrine of Discovery to deny land rights to the Oneida Nation as recently as 2005.

A lot of times, simply bringing forth the history of the Doctrine can be enough for people to pause. Take a moment to share some of this knowledge. Keep in mind, this can be very difficult to internalize and folks may be shocked or angered. Remember to take time to breathe and check in with your own well-being and safety.

Questions to ask: Our country holds to some values that are really important, like the freedom to worship, and the right of all people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So why do you suppose we still use centuries old Catholic documents to justify land theft? How can we begin to live up to our values? What do you think it might look like to take responsibility for the harm that faith communities that we’re part of have caused?

Further readings and actions: The Christian and Catholic Churches are incredibly well resourced not only in cash but also in land. Many, if not all, Indigenous-led movements across the continental United States call for return of land to Indigenous stewardship. How can the church leverage its many resources in solidarity with Indigenous-led efforts for land return? There is a project in California that is working for the return of urban land to Indigenous stewardship. Could your church start a conversation about returning land to Indigenous peoples? A number of churches, including the Episcopal Church, have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery and now other Churches need to follow suit and move into conversations about land return. Here is a site about Doctrine of Discovery and repudiation. Here and here are videos explaining Doctrine of Discovery. This site is on Doctrine of Discovery and U.S. Laws, and here is another.

Goal 6: Engage in local struggles and build relationships

There are ongoing Indigenous-led struggles for land and self-determination all over the continental United States. Not all Indigenous spaces and organizations are looking for outside help; many are. Educate yourself on the history of current struggles. Reach out and take principled and accountable action by centering relationships in your work. The work will often be request-based and/or take on various forms of asking for permission and seeking guidance/input. This is a nuanced dance of taking initiative while ensuring there is guidance and the work upholds—rather than undermines—community self-determination. Your participation in decision-making and giving input should be determined by the Indigenous peoples you work with and will depend on the specific goals.

Instead of seeking to integrate Indigenous peoples and movements into your own existing frameworks (environmental, racial justice, women’s rights…), educate yourself and your group around movements for Indigenous self-determination and control over land base and resources as distinct from other frameworks. Instead of trying to incorporate, ask how you can support existing and ongoing efforts.

Asking permission fundamentally shifts the entitlement inherent to the settler experience. Cultural appropriation is an extension of genocide, forced removals and land theft, as settlers take what does not belong to them as if it is rightfully theirs. This can be countered by asking permission to be on Indigenous peoples traditional lands. This practice can be extended in a variety of ways and open up new modes of relating and relationships. As one of the first steps of planning, ask permission for any gatherings, marches, etc., from an Indigenous representative of the land you are on. Invite them to collaborate in planning around gatherings, conferences, actions and campaigns for justice work on their traditional homeland. Be open to the work shifting because of such collaboration.

Questions to ask: How does it feel to think about asking permission to engage in this work? What does that bring up for you? Why might asking permission to engage in work be uncomfortable for white people?

Goal 7: Learn together

It is tough talking with children about these painful realities, but it’s even more dangerous to avoid these conversations. Many Native children are growing up with traumas and dangers due to ongoing colonization. Native children may already be discussing the genocides their people face. White students in high school or college often express a sense of betrayal at being lied to when they were younger, which doesn’t foster healthy relationships. Now is an important moment to teach our children the necessity of acting on our values.

Encourage learning that is personal, emotional, spiritual, embodied and communal. Host reading groups and discussions that build an understanding of settler colonialism and your community’s relationship to settler colonialism that is tied to Indigenous solidarity. Start this Thanksgiving!

Questions to ask: What is the cost of teaching false narratives to the children in our lives? What are the benefits of teaching children our honest histories, as documented by the people most impacted by harm caused by our ancestors?

Further readings and actions: Learn together by finding readings to share. Roxanne Dun-bar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” is a helpful place to start, and there are numerous resources, such as books: “Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality,” and Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call by the late Arthur Manuel (Secwepemc). Children’s books like: Stolen Words and A Is for Acorn: A California Indian ABC. Check out the reading list for Black Mesa Indigenous Support, the Colors of Resistance archive, the online journal Decolonization, the No One Is Illegal network, Unsettling America, queer Indigenous studies, critical Indigenous studies and more. Regularly read and financially support Indigenous media sources such as Last Real Indians.

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