Thanksgiving was first celebrated in the late 19th century. It embraces a whitewashed history of Native Americans sitting down happily with the Pilgrims to celebrate a successful year of harvest, and most importantly, life. The story touts that the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to hunt turkey and plant corn, and with their freshly harvested crops and fire-roasted bird, everyone celebrated and feasted together. This joyous ideal is what we are taught all throughout elementary school, something consequently ingrained in our consciousness. It is explained that this holiday is a time for “giving thanks” and conscious cultural appropriation. In peppy, youthful classes all across America, students fashion feathered headdresses and jump around in circles, soon to sit down criss-cross applesauce and talk about how they’re thankful for their dog or mommy. For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a simple time to consume questionable turkey innards and steaming mashed potatoes and talk about “what they’re thankful for,” which usually involves a drowsy response of “each other.” However, for many others, Thanksgiving has a contentious history that goes far beyond the time the initial “feast” was held.
Americans love traditions, but many are unaware of why these so-called traditions are so widely celebrated. For Native Americans, Thanksgiving is not a holiday synonymous with blessings, praise and gratitude. Instead, it is a reminder of the dark history of the past four centuries that is rarely told transparently.
In his article, “Why I’m not Thankful for Thanksgiving,” Michael Dorris, an American novelist, scholar and member of the Modoc Tribe, wrote, “Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding … Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained? Is it necessary for the North American psyche to perpetually exploit and debase its victims in order to justify its history?”
At the whitewashed feast that is so well celebrated today, the sitting down and breaking of bread with Native Americans was a prelude to one of the worst acts of genocide in the history of our planet. America is built on an endless stream of broken promises from invaders who exploited and commiserated the indigenous people of the land they “founded.” With this in mind, let Natives express their trauma over “Thanksgiving” and genocide without tone policing them or reprimanding them on how they are “making others feel bad” about wanting to celebrate an entirely commercial holiday. Just as there was backlash against the movement to rename racist sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins, non-Natives are uncomfortable when confronted with terrible histories of what America has done to its Native people. America is not losing its values because “friendsgiving” is becoming more popular than Thanksgiving; People are simply readjusting their priorities and realizing they don’t want to continue filling their lives with toxic bonds for the sake of the title “family.”
Thanksgiving is steeped in tradition, and lately, this sense of tradition is being threatened for Americans who hold their familial ideations and ignorance so dearly. Although the concept of celebrating the holidays with your friends instead of family members has been around for decades, the term “friendsgiving” has been made more prevalent in recent years. Although it’s only a simple word-change and still the same concept, some people are up in arms talking about how America is losing its values by embracing friendsgiving and negating Thanksgiving. A Huffington Post article even alleged that “it’s precisely the absence of any threat to life and limb that makes Friendsgiving such a fail.” It’s claimed that people would rather work or spend time with their friends than go home to spend time with family around the holidays. However, being able to denounce people who make these decisions comes from an inherent place of privileged family dynamics and a limited perspective.
The holidays are a hard time for a countless number of people. Many do not have functional homes with happy, smiling family members to return to. Others may face a financial barrier and not be able to afford to travel hundreds of miles or take off work to see family members. Flights home are expensive, especially around the holiday season, and people may wonder if it’s worth it to spend entire paychecks to go home to a potentially miserable environment. Consequently, choosing to celebrate with loved ones who are geographically closer can avoid the anxiety caused by making these tough monetary decisions. Individuals may also not feel comfortable being around family members due to past traumas, differing political or emotional outlooks, homophobia, racism, overall bigotry and so on. Perhaps the reasoning behind not wanting to see family is simpler and someone just doesn’t want to answer all their aunts and uncles’ menacing questions or address “what can you do with an English degree?” Having a great family dynamic where you can spend every holiday together without it being chaotic, stressful and exhausting is fantastic. However, this environment isn’t the case for plenty of people, so friendsgiving and other friend-centered holiday celebrations are new trends that create comfortable dynamics that promote inclusion and mutual well-being among loved ones.
In the best-case scenario, we choose who has access to our time and space, especially during the holiday seasons. Between seasonal depression, toxic families and the looming possibility of the death of relatives, sometimes reintroducing yourself to a family environment after weeks away can be very challenging. If you must attend and you become uncomfortable due to your identification with a community that is being verbally harassed at a family outing, please know you deserve better and so many are supporting you walking out. Abusive families or family members that are cruel, unaccepting and bigoted do not have inherent value and do not need to be given time — if at all possible. Friendsgiving is all about choices, and people should not be shamed for choosing what sets them at peace. It’s about celebrating life with people you care about and vice versa, not people you should be forced to encounter.
Commercially constructed holidays with centuries-old, genocidal pretenses should be cut out altogether. Friendsgiving is an obvious substitute, and although it may be much healthier and enjoyable for many without functional, poster families, the whitewashed holiday seasons are still a constant and looming trauma for Native peoples. Although the holiday is toxic in a variety of ways, proper education in the genocidal history of this feast can allow people to remember the trauma of colonization on the Native Americans. Over the holidays, we can get together with loved ones to mourn those who were murdered and lost, as well as their centuries of traditions and sacred land, by acknowledging the true history of America and Thanksgiving while giving agency to Native Americans. I realize the centuries of stolen land and murder may be “hard to teach,” but it is necessary. If you are privileged enough to celebrate the holidays with a happy, functional family, please take a moment to examine this privilege and recognize the inability of countless families across America to do the same. Friendsgivings should be encouraged for those without readily accessible, stable and happy families, but both institutions should prioritize giving respect to Native Americans and remembering the trauma these holidays have caused.
Brittany Bowman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.