Making Meaning out of Thanksgiving

By Tari Gunstone

It’s poignant that in America, we have to commercialize the giving of thanks in order to get our heads out of our asses for one moment. It doesn’t come naturally for us to celebrate the opportunities, resources, and luxuries we’ve been offered. Life is a hard road to navigate, but it has been paved with things worth celebrating. For all of us Greeners, we are united by the possibility of going to college. While it would be beneficial for each of us to make a practice of continually recognizing and stating our gratitude, the Thanksgiving holiday offers an opportunity for us to be forced into it. However, it is essential to understand why it is on the calendar and what is problematic about it.

The fabricated story commonly told of a friendly harvest festival between indigenous people and their new pilgrim neighbors is a disgraceful cover-up for the riotous celebrations which followed the violent victories of white settlers against indigenous people. The first account of such festivals occurred in 1637 in what is now modern day Connecticut with the honoring of white “hunters” who had just returned from a massacre of at least 700 indigenous Pequot men, women, and children during the Pequot’s celebration of their Green Corn Festival. Appropriating the indigenous festival for their own, the governor declared, “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and Thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” The war celebrations of early America became so frequent that by the time George Washington became president, he ordered a proclamation for just one annual day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26th, 1789. The presidents that followed frequently renewed this proclamation as a well-liked tradition until Abraham Lincoln officially declared a Federal holiday for the giving of thanks on the fourth November of each year after, of course, a successful war battle for the Union Army in 1863.

The closest we historically know of white settlers and indigenous people sharing a meal together centers around the early Plymouth Rock settlers and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621. Wampanoag warriors set up camps surrounding the pilgrim’s new village for three days to keep a careful eye on the pilgrims while they ecstatically shot off guns and cannons to celebrate their first successful crop harvest due to the helpful aid of Squanto, a Patuxet tribesman who had been previously enslaved by European captors. The Wampanoags hunted and foraged to provide food for their camps in the forests, and the pilgrims ate their harvest in town. Some accounts suggest that the Wampanoags were invited to join the pilgrims, with the Wampanoags then providing the bulk of the food eaten. But regardless, there was no large dining table decorated with a cornucopia of Autumn produce connecting them.

History does not point us toward the stories of harmony between indigenous people and white settlers like the Thanksgiving we were taught as children, instead their relations are overwhelmingly marked by physical and cultural genocide, slavery, land theft, and other horrific atrocities. For many indigenous people, Thanksgiving serves as a pivotal moment each year to raise their voices with protest against Thanksgiving as a marker of that genocide. There is an annual “National Day of Mourning” gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts and an “Unthanksgiving” rally in San Francisco. For non-indigenous Americans who are aware of the origins of Thanksgiving, it seems more appropriate to have a day of Atonement than a day of Thanksgiving.

The holiday continues as a deeply imbedded cultural emblem that we are forced to interact with, regardless if we personally celebrate it or not. As Evergreen students, we are given a whole week off of school surrounding Thanksgiving day. Many of our families expect us to come home and perform rituals of cooking, football watching, excessive eating, and even engage in the frenzied act of capitalistic excessiveness that is Black Friday shopping. This of course can be a happy time of sharing and creating memories. I personally love eating myself into a food coma where I can justify a two hour couch nap. I also love preparing food with loved ones in the kitchen and think eating together without cell phones and other distractions is a sacred act in this modern age. For others, the Thanksgiving holiday can be a shit-show of deeply embedded family conflict where everyone’s sharpening their claws along with the knife that will carve the turkey. Joyful or intolerably aggravating, it is essential that we acknowledge the history of racism that birthed this holiday. It is terrible that our day of gratefulness memorializes the rampage of violence and injustice against indigenous people in our country. If you are celebrating Thanksgiving in some form or another, I suggest diving into this history further than this short article can provide. I encourage sharing this knowledge with your family and friends at your Thanksgiving gathering, even if it feels torturous to be the bearer of bad news. I also offer these suggestions for helping create a meaningful, or at least tolerable experience of this observed holiday:

Choose who you Want to be With

Christmas might carry heavier weight of family obligation, but your Thanksgiving plans can be up to you. You are an adult now, your parents and grandparents can likely understand that you are beginning to form new important communities in your life that you want to invest in. Let your celebration of gratitude be reflected upon the people you are most genuinely grateful for at this time in your life. Don’t feel guilty for skipping it with the family if this means being with friends. If you’re worried about your family’s reaction, send a nice card in advance. If eating chinese take-out and listening to your favorite records in your friend’s basement sounds like a good time, go for it. Maybe it will feel most meaningful to go forage mushrooms with friends or buy vegetables from a farm you love and want to support to create a special dinner that embodies the spirit of harvest.

Say What You’re Thankful For

It might feel excruciatingly forced and perhaps a bit corny to go around the table discussing what you are grateful for, but it can be an uncomfortable practice with great reward. Every year my friends and I celebrate Tanksgiveamas (a hybrid Thanksgiving-Christmas celebration where we get tanked). Sometime during the night, we all crowd into one room and sit down to share what we are most grateful the year offered to us. We laugh, nod in agreement, and a slew of us even tear up at the tenderness of it all. We reflect on personal growth, on things that have been undeniably difficult, on realizations and moments of humility. We share what we love about the people with us in that room, and we are given permission to say what we love about ourselves. It’s a time of vulnerability that leaves us all with a sense of persistence to get through the rest of the year with a full heart. If the giving of thanks in a round comes up for you this year, try to contribute meaningfully. It’s easy to say you are thankful for having food, shelter, and clothing, but digging into the deeper stuff can be poignant and can turn a boring tradition into a possibility for genuine reflection.

Help Provide a Meal for Someone Other Than Yourself

Instead of bearing the conventional football watching and drawn-out dinner set-up, make a suggestion to your family or friends to switch it up this year or create a new tradition of helping a nonprofit that serves meals to people who don’t have access to a warm home. The Thurston County Food Bank will be distributing food boxes for Thanksgiving on Monday, the 21st and are looking for volunteers. You can also serve hot meals for lunch or dinner any day of the week at the Community Kitchen on 5th and Plum or on Saturdays with Food not Bombs (contact

Stand in Solidarity with Indigenous Communities 

Most importantly, see Thanksgiving as a day to honor and support the indigenous people in our local communities and across the nation who are still continuing to fight for their sovereign rights. Do more than just talk about it. Of course, the most highlighted struggle right now is the ongoing Standing Rock protests to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Major financial contribution is needed to help support medical clinics, camp food and supplies, and legal defense funds to keep the protest alive. On a more local note, save your money to buy holiday gifts from indigenous artisans and vendors rather than engaging in the madness of Black Friday and other holiday shopping venues that so often exploit the labors of the poorest in our global community.