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Little Thunders— Unsettling Truthsgiving

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I absolutely love pie — especially pecan pie. I’m also the type of person who regularly expresses my gratitude for friends, family and all the gifts of nature and harvest. What if there was a day just for this type of gratitude where people across Turtle Island (North America) were able to all be thankful at the same time? As many parents here in Yellow Springs and beyond realize, we want our children and young people to participate in Thanksgiving — but how do we also talk to them about the troubling, enduring effects of the story of the first meal celebrating the harvest? November is also Native American Heritage Month and an excellent time to talk to our families about the real story behind Thanksgiving.

The first step in the process of understanding is to choose to be unsettled — and knowing how to deal with these feelings makes a big difference not only for you, but also for your children and our future relationships. It is unsettling to know that we should not dress up in pilgrim hats and Indian feathered bands and talk about the friendships between the Indian savages and the gentle settlers from 1620 — because this is a lie, and a very unsettling one. Cringe with me for a moment as we reflect on the fact that this was a common activity across nearly all public schools and community celebrations during our lifetimes.

It is also unsettling to realize that Indigenous people are not celebrating with you and do not feel honored or respected by false narratives around Thanksgiving. In fact, Native American Nations and individuals generally regard this day as a national day of mourning.

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Thanksgiving originated from a massacre. The unsettling truth is, in 1637, colonists launched an attack on the Pequot Nation after a white man was found dead — and the retaliation attack decimated the Pequot people. The few survivors of the massacre were either enslaved to work in the homes of the colonists or were scattered among other Algonquin speaking Nations. I’m told that it is likely some of the 1,500 or so people found refuge here on this land in Yellow Springs that we now occupy — only to later be forcibly removed.

The sad tale of a boy named Squanto is unsettling as well. Let us not romanticize a notion that Squanto was an appreciated cross-cultural interpreter. The truth is that Squanto was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Spain. He learned English so he could get home. Upon his return home, he found his entire village had been killed in battle or by deliberately infecting people with diseases brought by the colonists. Then the perpetrators used Squanto to kill even more Brown people.

One day after the great massacre of “Thanksgiving,” the then Governor William B. Newell wrote that, from that day forth, it should be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for destroying the Pequot people. He wrote, “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

This truth is not easy. It is unsettling and would be much simpler to merely ignore the history and eat the pecan pie. I reject the false “pilgrims and Indians” narrative, but I do look at Thanksgiving as a day to find deep gratitude for what my family has right in front of us, whatever that is — especially during this time of retreat and distance. So much has happened this year, and so many people have suffered and are suffering. There are still children in cages; there are still people dying from a pandemic; still wars; still mass incarceration; still killings of Black and Brown people at the hands of the police. I hope we can all have a chance to be grateful for the people we love and the food we have, even if you don’t like pie.

Thanksgiving — sometimes referred to as Truthsgiving — is a reminder of the genocide of millions of the Indigenous ancestors and the theft of our lands because of settler colonialism. This day, we honor our dead. Telling the unsettling truth is a way to protest the continuing racism and tyranny that Black and Brown people are subjected to, even now. There are still Natives who host family meals during this season, but that is because we’ve always held harvest feasts, long before the pilgrims’ arrival.

Finding a way to process difficult and unsettling truths and still find hope builds resilience. Believe me — I’ve been there, and this is my practice as an Ojibwe woman. Our sovereign tribes are still under attack to this day, living with historical intergenerational trauma, voter suppression, crushing poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, representation issues, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women (#MMIW), toxic pipelines through our lands and the use of Indigenous images as mascots. And yet, we heal as we dance, drum and sing. We feed and honor our elders, protect Mother Earth, we save seeds, protect water, speak truth, build medicine bundles, share wisdom freely and honor our ancestors.

Since my time moving here to our lovely, welcoming village of Yellow Springs, I’ve been met with generosity and kindness. Shane Creepingbear and I have been collaborating on projects related to re-indigenizing. We’ve hosted discussions, authored land acknowledgements, hosted feasts, grown Indigenous foods, pushed people away from cultural appropriation, invited elders and Indigenous leaders to the region and have been working to create space and normalize Nativeness and Indigeneity. We’ve also been working to build strong, respectful relationships to sovereign nations and their leaders. This welcoming work has brought many conversations to the forefront — from discussions with school leaders, teachers, event organizers, and land owners, and we’ve been speaking truth. This work cannot be done alone, and we need our entire village to learn how to sit with unsettling truths in solidarity with people of culture and color. This is what is required.

This November 26, as you sit down to your meal, I have a message for the young people because they will understand better than anyone else: There is no need to shy away from the truth. Staying in discomfort and being unsettled by the truth is required in order to be in solidarity with people of culture and color. I know that you will hear the older folks talk about how we must ‘move on’ and not talk about the past, or maybe you’ll hear that you are too young to hear the truth, or that this kind of truth-telling will ruin dinner conversation. This simply isn’t true. In fact, it is the young people who have been rising up and listening through most of history who have led to the greatest social changes and betterments.

My thunder for so-called Thanksgiving is to acknowledge that now may be Native American Heritage Month, but it is also a very good time to unsettle yourself, notice Indigeneity all over the planet, our relation to the earth, wisdom and work toward liberation together. 

Miigwech (thank you).

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3 Responses to “Little Thunders— Unsettling Truthsgiving”

  1. Gary Brown says:

    Extremely well-written! Thank you! Peace…..Gary Brown age 73 Cleveland, Ohio

  2. Teech Struthers says:

    I’m not so much worried about “solidarity” with anything today except ALL humanity and staying alive and I’m thankful so far the God of my Understanding has permitted me to do so.

    Be well.

  3. TribeOfOne DayAtAtime says:

    Overdoses are climbing again in the region and my prayers are with those struggling with alcohol/addictions during these sad pandemic times. My own ancestral stories flow White/Black/Red and booze, so this holiday season I’m grateful for sobriety. My family’s stories didn’t include that so, I’ll write my own.

    We’re having pizza.

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