Shifting the ritual of Thanksgiving, one child at a time


written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Susan Raffo

Growing up, it was one of the holidays where we gathered together at my great-grandmother’s house. Piles of aunts and uncles, cousins and people whose names I could never remember showed up with plates piled high with food. Turkey and dressing. Green beans and candied yams. That red jelly in a can that was supposed to be made of cranberries. Black olives. Pumpkin pie. Apple pie. And then cold turkey sandwiches later in the day.

As a kid, I didn’t really think about what Thanksgiving “meant.” It was a day off school with lots of family and lots of eating. In school we had lessons on hungry pilgrims and friendly Indians, but I wasn’t particularly captivated by the story. It was just the backdrop to that food-heavy date that fell a month before Christmas.

As I grew older, I began to learn more about this country’s history of colonization and genocide. Those “friendly Indians” who helped the Pilgrims during their first winter were rewarded with violence and direct attack as British and Dutch soldiers systematically massacred those communities seen to be living in the way of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was not the story that children learned in their schoolbooks. Public school lessons made it seem like the Brits and others gently touched down on unpopulated land, bartering new technology for food and paths through the forest.

While a number of US presidents came up with the idea of “thanksgiving”, it was Abraham Lincoln who made it a federal holiday in 1863. In the midst of the Civil War, his “thanksgiving proclamation” was designed to spark national unity. Using the mythological “first supper” of Pilgrim-Indian partnership as a symbol of US beginnings, Lincoln called on all USers to heal their divisions and to come together in happy and well-fed unity.

Shortly after this proclamation of unity and love, President Lincoln ordered federal troops to march against the Dakota community in Minnesota. Dakota tribal leaders were organizing against the ongoing betrayal of the US government, seeking to protect their remaining land rights. Lincoln’s call for federal troops was a response to this uprising and brought military power against the Dakota community. Whole families wintering near the Mississippi River were rounded up and interned at Fort Snelling. President Lincoln’s executive order culminated in the execution of 38 Dakota warriors, still the largest execution on US soil in history. Happy Thanksgiving.

So what to do about this violent American holiday? Our daughter, Luca, is being raised with an understanding of the genocide, of our family’s role within it, of the meaning of the land we are living on, and with a commitment to constant learning and action towards, in the case of where we live, Dakota and Anishinabe sovereignty. How we celebrate Thanksgiving falls right in the middle of that.

While we have always told the story of the genocide and problematized the myth of the Thanksgiving story, last year we expanded it outside of our household. Here is what we do for Thanksgiving:

On Wednesday night, we invite over some of the kids that Luca is growing up with. Last year we showed two films: the chapter from the PBS documentary, We Shall Remain called “After the Mayflower” which details the history of what we call Thanksgiving. After watching this, the kids watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The kids then spent time comparing the two movies. Why, we asked, do you think that we have the story of thanksgiving that Charlie Brown, and a lot of our schools and families, tell? How is it different from the story described in the PBS documentary? How come the mainstream story only focuses on one day? What isn’t being said? And again, why is this the only story being told?

These kids run in age from 5 to 10. Most of them are white kids, although not all. Some of them are being raised in “political families” that talk about things like this all of the time. Many of them are not. Each one of these children has strong answers to these questions. For lack of better words, they get it. Immediately. And they want to do something about it.

You see, that’s the great thing about kids. It’s simple. What happened was wrong. That means we have to think about how we are going to change it. Period.

We gather together on the third Thursday in November to hang out with family and friends, to eat good food and to do that kind of checking in that family rituals are all about. We come together as community because we are community to each other. And we do it while holding what this third Thursday represents. And thinking about how to change it.

A big part of the change is watching how the children internalize their own sense of who they are as people raised in the US and how it means they think about this land. Their “knowing” comes out in all kinds of ways – talking about Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, who tried to build relationships with the settlers that would enable his community to remain on their land, and then talking about Metacomet, or Phillip, Massasoit’s son, who initially tried to continue his father’s relationship approach to the colonization and then, after facing the continuing violence of the settlers, led an uprising against the British that resulted in his massacre.

Last year, as we sat around the dinner table, passing plates and chatting, one of the older kids, Miguel, called for a toast. “This toast is for Massasoit,” he said. “He tried to make peace happen between the English and his tribe but the English wouldn’t let it happen. I wish it had happened differently. I want to remember him and to make sure that what happened to Massasoit and his son, Phillip, never happens again.”

Ritual is deeply important. It’s the way that a community and a culture anchors itself in its own histories and its visions for the future. I grew up with a Thanksgiving of food and family as the most visible reason for getting together. Embedded in that family ritual were the stories about pilgrims and indigenous communities. Also embedded in that family ritual were all of the histories I was never told; their omission part of what enables non-Native people in the US to believe that “the Indians are all gone,” and enables federal policy to continue working to make sure that all indigenous people disappear in the name of opening up resources for the free market.

Telling the story of Thanksgiving differently is never enough. Without action and commitment to deeply supporting Native sovereignty through supporting treaty rights and responding to Native calls for solidarity, then words are only bits of hot air. But words are still important. Rituals are set up to remind us of who we are, why we are here, and what it means to follow through on the best parts of ourselves. They are opportunities for healing.

So why post this story? Writing this piece is not about trying to get you to think that our family rocks and that we are all righteous about doing the right thing. It’s not about standing on some soapbox telling you, the reader, the right way to behave as a non-Native ally. It’s also not written as though what we do is even close to big enough to work against our role within the legacy of genocide. Instead, it’s an offering. As a queer person, my right to determine my own gender, desire and body is integrally connected to how much or how little every other individual and community gets to determine their own path. My self-determination is embedded with the history of every Dakota and Anishinabe individual and community whose self-determination was destroyed so that the homestead my house rests upon could be sold to the newest wide-eyed settler.

This essay is an offering, a request for your partnership in thinking and acting every single day towards a practice that truly supports our collective liberation. I am thankful for what I will learn from you.


We Shall Remain: After the Mayflower, PBS

1621: A new look at Thanksgiving

Susan Raffo lives in Minneapolis where she writes, is a bodyworker, parents, does different kinds of community-flavored work and tries to love her people well. A version of this piece was also published on

Photo Credit: mdpNY

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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