Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 26: Giving Thanks & Thanksgiving (and the difference between them)


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Hi friends,

Okay it’s Thanksgiving week and life is chaotic and the pandemic is raging and, as excited as we are to celebrate *something, anything, please give us an event to mark the passage of time,* we are also particularly wary this year. 

We have already given you our spiel about being safe this holiday season and our conversation tips for potentially difficult dinner table conversations (virtual and in person). Today, thanks to the help of a presentation shared with us by Jonathan Beecher Field, we’re going to talk about holding two truths at once: to distinguish between giving thanks and Thanksgiving. If you want to see the entire presentation, you can do so here.

For many of us, Thanksgiving is always coupled with memories of copious amounts of food, family football games, and going around the table to name our gratitude for something in our lives. Maybe we also celebrated by serving food at a local shelter or preparing meals for neighbors who lived far away from their families. Mostly wonderful, heartfelt experiences.*

*(yes, we totally want to acknowledge that the holidays can also be hard as hell for some of us, and that’s real too! 

The more we learn more about the ways our history classes and public understanding has omitted a lot of the inconvenient truths around certain topics, the more we realize that Thanksgiving, like so many historical events we have unpacked this year, was much more painful than our kindergarten “Pilgrims and Indians” lesson disclosed. (Ellie was literally on the front page of the local newspaper as a little tot donning a Native American headdress from a Montessori Thanksgiving activity…) 

In 1621, English settlers at Plymouth rock and local Indignenous people, the Wampanoags, shared a meal together. These 102 settlers had come across the Atlantic on the Mayflower for 66 days and, upon landing, began making plans for a colony in Plymouth. 

Now, what is a settler? A settler is someone who moves somewhere else and stays there. (A settler is someone who shows up somewhere without an invitation and never leaves). 

The myth of Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Natives in the region goes like this: The Pilgrims arrived on Cape Cod in 1620. Initially there was hostility and suspicion between the Pilgrims and the Indigenous residents of the area. Then, there was an exchange of food and services that marked the “first” Thanksgiving, and the Pilgrims and the Indians lived together happily ever after.

We don’t know many details about the “First Thanksgiving,” but we do know that the history that followed from 1621 featured violent conflict between settlers and Natives, with the ultimate result of decimated Native populations, and settler control over the region.

The Pilgrims showed up at what they called Plymouth; what was already called Wampanoag named after the Indigenous group whose home it was. (Image from nativeland.ca)


That notable meal between the Wampanoag people and the pilgrims was not recognized as “Thanksgiving” as we know it today until more than 200 years later. In 17th century New England, Puritan/Pilgrim leaders would declare days of thanksgiving or repentance in response to events, rather than on a set schedule. In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decided to declare a national day of Thanksgiving as a way to unite the divided nation.

Lincoln’s proclamation stated, “Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements.”

The ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements. 

Between the proverbial “first thanksgiving” in 1621 and when Abraham Lincoln gave that 1863 proclamation, a lot of bloodshed and disease ravaged the Indigenous groups within the settlements. The “ax that enlarged the borders of our settlements” came through violence and biological warfare alike. 

Emboldened by the Jamestown Massacre, a 1622 act of retaliation by the Powhatan peoples who were sick of English settlers on their ancestral land that killed many English settlers, the Pilgrims used this horrible incident to justify any and all violence toward Indigenous groups from that point forward. In the year that followed that “first thanksgiving,” all ideals of harmony between the tribes and the settlers flew out the window. This led to the Pequot War in 1636, where the settlers killed many Iroquois people, the Beaver Wars between the Algonquin and Huron people and French settlers for the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Battle of Tippecanoe where settlers destroyed the entirety of a Shawnee village, the Seminole wars which all but wiped out the entire Seminole tribe of what’s now Florida, and the list goes on and on. 

Perhaps most relevant to modern Native experiences, the Pilgrims’ settling in Plymouth eventually led to the 1831 Indian Removal Act, the forced migration of all native people from what’s now known as Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama. This also followed the Louisiana Purchase, where “Manifest Destiny” ideals inspired settlers, that gave settlers the full permission of then-President Andrew Jackson to take over all Native-held land suitable for growing cotton west of the Mississippi River. This meant that over 60,000 people would be forced to walk across 5,043 miles along what’s now known as the “Trail of Tears,” and less than half of them survived. They were resettled in Oklahoma, which became a U.S. territory by 1907, securing the end of the era of Native Americans having non-state reservations in the nation. 

In the years that followed the 1831 Indian Removal Act, we saw laws restricting Native people from leaving their designated reservations without the permission of the U.S. Federal Government, multiple massacres in the name of controlling “savages,” boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School promising to “kill the Indian, save the man,” and the Dawes Act that allowed reservation land apportionment to white settlers and violating the treaties.


The arrival of the pilgrims marked another era of violence and disease that slowly decimated Indigenous groups in the region. This normalized violence against Native people in the Americas by any and all Europeans who landed in the “new” world. The pilgrims on the Mayflower were part of a much longer and more problematic arc than the “shared meal” narrative would have us believe. Tragically, the Pilgrims, too, were part of the foundation of a nation that eventually killed over 90% of the Native American population, which was over 55 million people.

Beyond this, the American education system’s hero worship of pilgrims and other colonizers perpetuates a false sense of superiority of Eurocentric values, language, and appearances. The fact that we learn about the “destiny” of Columbus and of the Mayflower, but not the genocide that they spurred, not the loss of the millions of lives and thousands of cultures, languages, and customs, isn’t just ignorant, it’s dangerous. The often Anti-Indigenous, pro-settlement sentiment, carried by the “peaceful meal together, lest we have to kill their whole village” narrative came along with every ship that landed on these “new” shores, and can be credited with everything from the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the lack of protections for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women today. 


Since the 1970s, Indigenous Groups have gathered at Plymouth around Thanksgiving to observe a National Day of Mourning. 

This year, the holiday arrives amid a global pandemic that has taken a particular toll on Indigenous people and other people of color throughout the nation. It also arrives on the heels of a national struggle over racial justice. These dual crises have “fueled an intense re-examination of the roots of persistent inequities in American life.” And we think rightfully so!

This year Thanksgiving also comes alongside an election in which 110 American Indian and Alaska Native candidates ran for office, according to the National Congress of American Indians, and on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. Per this New York Times article, Winona LaDuke, the Native American activist and writer who ran for vice president in 1996 and 2000 as Ralph Nader’s running mate, stated that she believes that the country is primed to re-envision Thanksgiving as an occasion to come to terms with the cruelty Native Americans have experienced throughout history.


National Day of Mourning Sign at Plymouth. Photo courtesy of this presentation by Jonathan Beecher Field. 


Great question – honestly, we’re still figuring it all out ourselves. We think this year, amidst the pandemic and without our rosy colored “I don’t see race” glasses on, it is a great time to learn more about the history of Native people where we live and to research how to support those people’s descendants now. Share your wealth and make payments to Native-led groups a part of your regular repertoire (you can start with NDN Collective, Indigenous Environmental Network, Chinook Fund’s Mutual Aid links, or just by googling your area + reservations + mutual aid to see if there is a way you can share with someone in your current neighborhood). 

This year, we recommend talking about the difference between giving thanks and “Thanksgiving.” It’s okay to struggle to balance the joy the holiday has brought to you and your family alongside the mourning that it has brought to others; it’s not okay to ignore the bloodshed for the sake of preserving your own comfort. Come up with a list of what you’re grateful for and see if there are ways you can pay that gratitude back to the folks whose ancestral land you’re occupying. 


We know we’ve mentioned this before (we are literally copying this in from our Indigenous People’s Day Newsletter), but if you haven’t yet, we highly recommend downloading the Native Land App to pay homage to whose ancestors occupied where you’re standing before and throughout its colonization. 

Emily, writing from what’s now Hilton Head, SC, is on historic Yamasee and Cusabo land. Ellie, writing from Denver, CO, is on land occupied by the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Ute, and Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires and Sioux Nation). 

It also feels important to note that there are still 574 Native American groups (and that doesn’t even count those unrecognized by state or federal governments) living in our world and they are in no way monolithic. In your search to know whose ancestral land you’re on, explore whether their current descendants are your neighbors, whether they were moved by force to another part of the country during the execution of the Indian Removal Act, and if there are nearby reservations (Federally recognized or otherwise) that you can learn more about. 


Thank you to Framinghan State University for this helpful explanation: 

A Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.Want to see what it looks like? Check out this video example and these written examples: CU Boulder, DU.

To recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on, and a way of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. It is important to understand the long-standing history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history.

Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation. It is also worth noting that acknowledging the land is Indigenous protocol.


We think it goes without saying that there is inherent value in knowing the history of where you live. But as Native Land’s developer, Victor Temprano, a Canadian who was “born in traditional Katzie territory and raised in the Okanagan” stated, this app is not just for “historical curiosity.” Temprano explains, “Western maps of Indigenous nations are very often inherently colonial, in that they delegate power according to imposed borders that don’t really exist in many nations throughout history,” Temprano explains on the site. “They were rarely created in good faith, and are often used in wrong ways.”

Knowing whose ancestral land that we now call home gives us an opportunity for collective reckoning with our nation’s colonizer past, and a more honest perspective of the land, the culture, the crops, and the bloodshed that shaped the world around us. We owe it to our shared humanity to know whose land we’re on and to fight like hell to preserve, uplift, and amplify the words and opportunities for the wellbeing of their descendants today. 


  • Superpredators: The Media Myth that Demonized Black Teenagers – the writers at the Marshall Project tackle the way the criminal punishment system and public opinion of Black youth and other youth of color has been fully shaped by the “Superpredators” language made popular by Hillary Clinton and the authors of the 1994 Crime Bill. Powerful and honest and just good reporting. 
  • Trump administration is first lame duck admin to carry out executions in over 100 years – something particularly cruel about the federal government scheduling executions during a pandemic that’s already doing enough killing
  • Op-Ed: New York City has Enough Vacant Apartments to House the Homeless, It’s Time to Do It – from the Bronx Times, this is the opinion piece to make us all question the ways we value space, money, and our neighbors’ ability to live this winter.
  • WATCH: Invisible People – InvisiblePeople.tv is a short series of interviews with people experiencing homelessness, told in their own words about their own lives. 
  • LISTEN: This Land – if you haven’t listened to it yet, there has never been a better time to dive in to this absolute gem of a podcast. 10 episodes about the history of U.S. government and Indigenous tribes across the nation, land sovereignty, and the ways that modern court rulings and policies affect the future of ever aspect of tribal members’ lives, particularly those that live on reservations. 
  • In 1864, Like in 2020, America Just Got Lucky – Clint Smith III writes about how this nation narrowly avoided disaster after the Civil War and in this past year’s election.

Alright, we are making gratitude lists and researching whose land we’re on and thinking about how to redistribute wealth back to the ancestral land we occupy. We’re also reading books! Sleeping in! Facetiming our relatives! Eating good food! We hope you do the same.

In Solidarity,

Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

PS – we are scheming our upcoming “support BIPOC businesses” gift guide for next week’s newsletter! Know a business owner you want to feature next week? We would love to share this platform with them! Send us your recommendations or your own gift ideas this year!

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