Thanksgiving: Remembering Colonialism, Genocide & the Truth About the Holiday Legacy

Rev. Jason Lydon
TRT Columnist

By: Jason Lydon*/TRT Columnist–

November sees the end of the election season and the beginning of the winter holidays. This is when we trade debates on television for debates over shared meals. We trade candidate ads for commercials convincing us to rack up credit card debt buying presents. Of course, we also trade Halloween candy for my personal favorite, Christmas music and candy canes. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on a particular holiday of this month, Thanksgiving.

Holidays can be really tricky times for us as queer and trans folk. For many of us, there are not families to celebrate with and there are not safe places to go when others are having big dinners. The holiday season can be triggering for those of us who are struggling with sobriety. When it comes to Thanksgiving, there is also that pesky history of colonialism and genocide that it conveniently tries to cover up.

I have been blessed with a family that not only accepts my queerness, but also puts up with my radical politics. Thanksgiving is the only consistent holiday my family gets together for year after year. We gather together on the South Shore of Massachusetts, in Kingston, and share a few days with each other. On Thanksgiving morning, a group of us always head out to Plymouth, not for the Thanksgiving parade, but for the annual commemoration of the National Day of Mourning. This is an event and march coordinated by the United American Indians of New England. It is a time for Indigenous people to tell a side of the story that is washed away by fake stories about pilgrims and Indigenous people having a happy dinner together. It is sad that Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams tells more truth about what the holiday really is in the film “Addams Family Values” than most young people get in their schools.

The gathering in Plymouth strives to tell some truth about the legacy of Thanksgiving. The first Thanksgiving was not in 1621, the meal shared by Indigenous people and the Pilgrims. Rather, the first Thanksgiving was declared by the Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, William Bradford, in 1637. It was not a celebration of kinship between the European colonizers and the Indigenous people, it was a celebration of the Pequot massacre. In his declaration, Governor Bradford wrote that the celebration was to be, “a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” The subduing was the murder of 700 people of all ages and genders. The gathering on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth each year, since 1970, is an opportunity to tell the truth and to challenge the ongoing genocide of Indigenous people today. People hold signs calling for the release of political prisoner and American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier. There are other signs reminding us that prisons are not native to the land and neither is homophobia. It’s a celebration of solidarity and a time for those of us who are white to listen and for the voices of Indigenous people to speak loudly for themselves.

I will say that after the rally on Cole’s Hill my family gets together for a feast of food, story-telling, laughing, silliness and joy in being together. The opportunity to hold hands and bless the food we are sharing is a cherished one, but the food tastes better and the family time feels better when we take time to be honest about where the holiday comes from and how it impacts people today. The rates of incarceration of Indigenous young people is unconscionable, the impacts of drug and alcohol use and the continued theft of land are all part of the ongoing oppression of Indigenous people. Yet people survive, dance, worship, celebrate and keep culture alive. There is so much good to be thankful for and many blessings to be counted. Our shared responsibility is to give thanks with open eyes and with awareness to what is going on around us. If you are with your family of origin, your family of choice, on your own, or working on November 22nd, take a moment to tell some truth about the theft of this country’s land. Get some pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, collards, or whatever other harvest foods you like best and remember that there is work to be done.

*Rev. Jason Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston. He is a long time anti-prison organizer and founder of Black & Pink, an LGBTQ-focused effort working toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Jason is also an avid lover of famous people and blockbuster action flicks. You can reach Jason at [email protected].

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