Thanksgiving and Native Struggle: Why It’s Okay to Be Grateful

November 4 in Standing Rock, a Water Protector watches from a distance as police brutalize Native people. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)

Thanksgiving angst has hit new highs this week, and with good reason. We’ve preemptively argued with each other online about whether or not to argue with our families in person, because, well, politics are that fucked right now. White nationalism is on the rise and with each passing day, Donald Trump still exists. And perhaps most pertinently, this day, that’s false narrative is irksome and hurtful every year, now stands in contrast to the reality of colonial violence, playing out on a historic scale in real time.

Since last spring, more than 200 Indigenous nations have converged in Standing Rock to resist construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in keeping with US tradition, law enforcement has waged war against those peoples. Water Protectors have been battered, tortured, tear gassed, struck with concussion grenades and shot down with rubber bullets. They have been terrorized with the constant noise of low-flying planes and the buzz of surveillance drones. They have lived, surrounded on all sides by an army of police and the very water they have gathered to protect — and with winter upon us, that water is now freezing cold.

I’m not surprised that after watching what our people are going though — being gassed away from prayer site, with no retreat but the frigid water at their backs, and being blasted with water cannons in the freezing cold — that many would have more pause than usual about the lies that decorate this holiday. I appreciate that pause. After all, these lies have always been an insult to our collective intelligence.

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War, for the sake of public morale. That’s an interesting enough story, but it has no enduring social or political utility, and nationalist holidays usually have both. Thanksgiving as a happy dinner day between pilgrims and Indians provides a fluffy historic cover for genocide.

Now, that’s utility.

I’m not saying all of this to chip away at your enjoyment of the day. I intend to enjoy it myself. I know that many Natives treat Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, and I respect that. If people choose to join that practice in solidarity, I respect that as well. But for myself, as a Native woman who organizes against state violence, I feel I spend enough of my time mourning for both the past and the present. I choose to resist the lies of this holiday, as constructed, by holding people close who would never support its fictions, and by cherishing the work they do and the community they build. Finding gratitude with such people, and taking comfort in their joy, doesn’t feel like a concession to colonialism to me.

On this day, some of my friends will find themselves in Standing Rock for the first time. Most travelled with friends or family to act in solidarity with Native freedom fighters. They are spending this day with loved ones, but in a way that defies the legacy of genocide by embracing justice for Native people, and bearing witness to our stories as they unfold.

To bear witness to what this system would erase is an act of resistance, and unrelenting, interconnected resistance is what is called for in these times.

We can’t all be in Standing Rock today, but like our friends who have made the journey, and our friends who have been there for months, we are not tethered to any colonial mythology as we share space today. So I would offer to anyone feeling conflicted, or who simply wants to push back against the legacies of harm that are embedded in this holiday: Talk about Standing Rock today. Talk about what you can do about it. Encourage those you break bread with to donate if they can. Talk about what Native sovereignty and collective liberation might look like. Talk big. Because our gratitude doesn’t have to be bound up in a harmful nationalist mythology. Our connectedness and our gratitude can be transformational, today and every day.