Is Thanksgiving built on the genocide of the Native Americans? If so, how should we retell our story?

While I’m not so sure that the best way to rewrite the revisionist history surrounding Thanksgiving is to remove it as a federal holiday, or to move it to another month, I do think we should wrestle with the critique of Thanksgiving offered by Eugene Cho in his post “Rewriting History: Thanksgiving and Genocide”. Cho offers some worthwhile suggestions for ways to begin reconciliation with Native Americans whose people suffered genocide at the hands of European invaders.

My wife shared this post on Thanksgiving on Facebook and she asked her friend Shilo George to respond from the perspective of a Native American. With her permission I have reposted her response:

In my opinion reparations for past genocide is a complex and difficult proposition. I don’t know that I think reparations alone would be helpful or appropriate. How do you “pay back” 500 years of genocide, loss of language and culture, massacres, boarding schools and other tactics that have lead to the problems we see in our indigenous communities today? The historical trauma and scares many of our community members carry today are still very deep and bloody. We must also ask ourselves reparations from who’s point-of-view? The ideas of reparations will probably look very different from the eyes of an indigenous nation than the eyes of the colonizer. I think most people think of reparations as monetary, including land. The colonizing government sees land as having only resource and economic value whereas most indigenous peoples see land (or have in the past) as sacred and something that cannot be owned, taken, or cut up.

While giving back land would go far in helping some tribal nations, I’m not sure that giving back land alone would be adequate. Neither would a lump sum of money. In my opinion, if we were to consider real reparations, it would look something like a combination of honoring treaty rights, giving a formal apology (federal, state, and local), and most importantly a process of mutual and from-the-heart longterm ceremonies, conversations, or gatherings of reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing. Someone told me one time that for a reparation to really have meaning the cost to the persons providing the reparation must be a real sacrifice on their part. I don’t know that money or land would be a real sacrifice for a rich nation that places little value on land and the natural world. To me what would really show a serious and deeply felt understanding of reconciliation would be regional, a national scale, effort to truly look at, learn, analyze, and digest it’s true history of dealings with indigenous peoples. To make an effort to LISTEN to the stories, experiences, feelings, and hearts of indigenous peoples from their area. To be able to hold space with an open heart and check their defensiveness at the door. To honestly evaluate how they and their family and community has benefited from the genocide of indigenous peoples. Going through a grieving process to an understanding and healing. Then having further conversations with indigenous peoples about what reconciliation would look like to them. I guess I believe in reconciliation over reparations.

There is an amazing documentary called “Two Rivers” that shows a small town in northern Washington and their process of reconciliation with the local indigenous peoples on the near by Coville Indian Reservation. What I described above was what they, as a community, took on to address the local effects of genocide of indigenous peoples and the taking of land. The outcome was an annual community powwow, new and more accurate educational materials and lessons about the local indigenous peoples being taught in their local schools, more opportunities for the two communities to get together and socialize, and the giving back of traditional huckleberry habitat to the tribe. The reconciliation was not brought on by the government, but by community members who reached out to the tribe. I would think each community would have a unique way in creating a reconciliation. Giving land and money is easy, taking the time for a reconciliation and healing process is a truly difficult, complicated, emotional, but ultimately rewarding and mutually beneficial outcome.