Rethinking a day for gratitude


I just gave goodbye kisses to my kids and partner and sent them on their way to enjoy a family Thanksgiving dinner. Sitting here, I think of some of various responses I’ve gotten since I decided I was no longer going to participate in any Thanksgiving activities.

More discussion in my Teaching Kids to Take a Stand post.

Some people are pretty confused about this. They say, “what is wrong with a day for gratitude?” Others, who know a little bit of history say “Yeah, a lot of bad stuff happened. But I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving because of that stuff. I celebrate it as a day to give thanks, as a way to honor Native Americans. Don’t you know that giving thanks is a Native tradition?”

There’s a lot to unpack here, it’s is difficult for me to even know where to start.

But as a parent who cares about social justice issues, one of the big challenges I face is intervening when historic lies are regurgitated, over and over. And as a parent who cares about social justice issues, you have this same challenge.

And so I write this for you. For you who have little ones, who are rethinking your stance on Thanksgiving, and who have families who are less than understanding. I hope to give you some information that can help you explain your stance but also so that you can give your kids a more accurate historic account, whether you share it now or when they’re older.

Let’s start with the idea that anything about Thanksgiving is an honor to Native Americans. I ask this, “Do they feel honored?”

And really this cuts to the heart of the issue, because it doesn’t matter how much we feel we are honoring people if they in fact do not feel honored. In contrast, the United American Indians of New England say that “Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture” (source) and since 1970 have been protesting Thanksgiving by declaring it a National Day of Mourning. This Day of Mourning has been adopted by indigenous communities all over the continent.

Why a day of mourning, some may ask. Didn’t pilgrims and indigenous families come together and enjoy a bountiful feast?

Watch these videos.


“Ok, ok” some may say, “so let’s reinvent Thanksgiving. Let’s acknowledge the historical and continuing genocide, but maybe we can just have a day simply for gratitude. Let’s make it a day that all people, including indigenous communities, can happily participate in. Wouldn’t this be modelled after indigenous traditions?”


I’m not going to speak for any indigenous community and explain the concept of gratitude from any indigenous culture. Not only would that not be appropriate in itself, but also I just don’t know because I didn’t grow up in a Native American culture.

The little I know is this: gratitude is infused into the daily lives, with everyday activities, for many (or all? I don’t know….) Native American cultures. To take a concept and make a holiday of once a year giving thanks is essentially another example of colonization.

To be clear, the act of gratitude in itself is not the problem. Give thanks. Have gratitude. It’s a great every day practice.

But to take an indigenous concept and repackage it for the benefit of white people is nothing short of appropriation. So when people claim that it is ok to celebrate thanksgiving as a day of giving thanks, in honor of Native traditions, what they are really doing is participating in the continuing oppression of Native Americans.

If you don’t participate in Thanksgiving, what are some of the responses you’ve received from family or friends? And how do you respond to them?


Rethinking a Day for Gratitude
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One thought on “Rethinking a Day for Gratitude

  • November 30, 2017 at 2:38 am

    We, white people, must confront our history and honestly acknowledge the genocide on which this country was founded. However, we are not very good at stepping into a place of discomfort. But we must sit inside the discomfort, own the discomfort, so we can own our istory of perpetrating violence, terror and genocide. If white people want to lay claim to any glory and heroism we think we see in our history in general and in cowboy—John Wayne— culture specifically, we must also lay claim the murderous campaigns that led to us becoming the majority of people. Such murderous campaigns define our white culture—a culture that celebrates violence in myriad ways—from the systematic genocide of indigenous peoples to the organized lynchings of black people throughout the 20th century. We must study our history from the other’s perspective, accept the truth of our past and own all of it, especially the parts the serve as a mirror, reflecting back to us a horrific, ugly, violent self. It is time white people take responsibility by merely standing up and speaking out against the continued oppression of indigenous people specially and people of color in general. We must effective change by breaking our silent acceptance of a mythical history.

    Many members of my family refuse to sit in the discomfort that comes from a true, honest reflection on our history. They do not want to spend time with me because I refuse to pretend we have something glorious to celebrate. No one wants even discuss why Thanksgiving offends indigenous people as a whole. Nor will they recognize why it offends the Blackfeet and Shoshone tribes who live all around my family in Idaho. So I am not invited to any of their homes for Thanksgiving or any other holiday. It is there way of silencing me so they can continue to avoid the discomfort that must come from an honest examination of history.


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