Thanksgiving – More Than a Turkey Dinner

By Lawrence Ware

It’s Thanksgiving once again: the day every year when we all engage in gluttony to celebrate the fact that White People were saved by Native Americans — at least that is how it has been framed historically.

I was horrified to learn that my son was being taught that the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because Pilgrims (read: white people) were given food and learned farming techniques from those helpful, colorful Indians. In class he was shown pictures of happy Native Americans bringing food to joyful Pilgrims — as if the whole thing were a dinner party. 

This is not new.

In America, there is a long-standing tradition of whitewashing the past. History in this country is taught as if only people whose skin was white contributed significantly to America. One of the major reasons why many find the concept of a “white history month” asinine is because in all months save February American history is told from a white perspective. It is the fact of euro-centrism that demands the need for Black History Month in February and Native American Heritage Month in November.

This euro-centrism seduces us into thinking that Thanksgiving should be celebrated because the Pilgrims were able to survive so that they were able to found America. This is a deeply problematic notion. It completely devalues the contributions made by the Wampanoag, and turns a blind eye to the suffering visited upon millions of native people in the wake of that first Thanksgiving.

Let’s be honest: every year on the last Thursday of November, we celebrate the beginning of a European invasion that ends with the death or relocation of millions of native people. While many have tried to redefine the meaning of Thanksgiving into a time when we cultivate a sense of gratitude, the undeniable truth is that the blood of native people stains the genesis of the holiday.

So why celebrate Thankgiving? I think there are a few reasons.

The Proliferation of Native Foods

Thanksgiving is a rare holiday in that sharing food is central to participating in the celebration. The food that one eats during a Thanksgiving meal reflects the culture of the ones that prepared it — food is a product of culture. As Jacqueline Keeler,  a member of the Dakota tribe, stated in her brilliant editorial “Thanksgiving: A Native American View,” “I sometimes wonder what they ate in Europe before they met us. Spaghetti without tomatoes? Meat and potatoes without potatoes?”

She makes a powerful point.

Native people are only associated with select foods: squash, corn, fry bread, and the like. What is not as well known is the degree to which even the history of food has been whitewashed. Europeans are often viewed as the ones who brought culture to native people, but what is not as well known is the degree to which the Europeans colonized native foods. Many of the dishes we consider inherently Italian, Spanish, or Irish would be impossible without the food native people introduced to European settlers. What we eat on Thanksgiving can be a means of recognizing the contributions of native people to our beloved family recipes.

Native History and Culture

Insofar as November has already been declared Native American Heritage Month, we can take seriously the charge to make learning about native culture and the contributions of native people as important as learning about African American history in February.  Native languages are dying, and the survival of a culture is linked to the survival of its language.  There are serious tribal efforts underway to preserve the First Americans’ way of life, but educators can be more intentional about including native language, history, and culture in curriculums in November. Thanksgiving can be a wonderful opportunity to learn about the contributions of native people beyond that first meal between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag.

Take back the night

No longer should we allow Thanksgiving to be about the Pilgrims who survived. It should be about the Wampanoag who gave selflessly; it is not about the beginning of Manifest Destiny, it is a day clothed in melancholy — remembering what was lost.  Take back the holiday from colonial hands. Let us make the holiday about the voices that were silenced instead of the cultural forces that silenced them.

Let us be mindful of all oppressed people during this holiday — especially those who are economically marginalized. In the same way that Thanksgiving Day has been coopted by powerful colonial forces, powerful economic forces have commoditized the night.

Let us honor those who were marginalized by colonization by standing in solidarity with those who are marginalized by capitalism. Across this country, workers who do not make a living, saving wage will stand up for their rights on Black Friday. Let’s stand with them.  Find a protest near you:

We shall make Thanksgiving about the oppressed, not the oppressor.


Lawrence_Ware-2.jpgLawrence Ware is a professor and lecturer in philosophy at Oklahoma State University; pastor of Christian education at the Prospect Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City; a  member of the Choctaw Nation,  and a member of DSA.


For those interested in more information on this topic:

Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (1988). Jack Weatherford.

Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America (1991).  Jack Weatherford and  J. McIver Weatherford 



Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.