A Thanksgiving Challenge

Owen L. Oliver
5 min readNov 23, 2020

It’s been a hard month. We’ve had to go through a stressful election that came down to the wire and took a whole week with states having to announce their results for the umpteenth time as the President continues to not concede. We have been caring for loved ones that aren’t with us, virtually hanging out over the internet, and fearing that COVID-19 might be closer than we know. Constantly changing our plans and crawling along the academic calendar, wondering where the courtesy from our professors is, and why we have been asked to do more work than normally assigned in person. It’s been a hard month. It’s also been Native American Heritage Month, a month that gets overshadowed by the election and is often forgotten after its end. However, we’re used to it being overshadowed as, despite the month being dedicated to recognition, it ends with everyone’s favorite American holiday: Thanksgiving.

Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of Thanksgiving. Food and community, and talking about what you’ve been thankful for. It’s a time for families to come together, exchange food, share stories, and slow down before the new year. Except this year, as the preparations have made this Thanksgiving more and more like the original event the holiday honors. The national pandemic only furthers this move to the source as the original Thanksgiving had large claims of listening to and respecting Native peoples, while all along, furthering deceit, violence, intentionally spreading sickness, and death.

In this current political climate, I have seen so many ‘how-to’ create a “Decolonized Thanksgiving” with “10 Steps to Decolonize Your Thanksgiving,” or a more summarized version with “How to Think about Making a Change,” which really means, “How to Think about Making a Change Without Actually Doing Anything.” According to my education and media consumption as a kid, Thanksgiving was about bringing Pilgrims and Indians together under a feast of Indigenous foods wrapped inside a cornucopia. Once together I learned that the Indians were able to teach the Pilgrims how to grow corn and catch eel to survive the harsh winters, yet the Indians were so humble and noble that they didn’t need anything in return and just wanted the Pilgrims to be successful visitors. As a kid, I kept thinking to myself, I wonder who kept track of that first Thanksgiving. Later, I understood that that history was a constructed lie and that large-scale public history in colonial states is always written by the colonizer to benefit the colonizer. The “how to” phrases I mentioned reflect and perpetuate the original Thanksgiving. They are a nod to Native peoples, yet they don’t establish anything new, repatriate wealth back to Indigenous people, or dismantle the system. Decolonizing Thanksgiving does nothing, if you are going to keep celebrating Thanksgiving the same way you would each and every year. So, I offer you a challenge.

Do a land acknowledgement.

Yes, a land acknowledgement. But, ‘Owen, aren’t land acknowledgements hollow and meaningless, that have no ties to the land and are only used to relieve one of guilt?’ And it’s true that certain ones are and it’s important to be aware of the ‘check off the box’ land acknowledgements. But, not the one I challenge you to do. I’m challenging you to think hard and honestly about your relationship to Indigenous people and to do a land acknowledgement that is personal and original. This means it involves the Indigenous people in your area, how you’ve benefited from the natural environment and knowledge systems of the area, and explains your roles and responsibilities in accordance to recognizing the land.

Let me help you.

First, you need to find whose land you are currently on; you may know this, or you might need a guide to point you in the right direction. I’ve been using native-land.ca for a while now, but it’s important to understand that native-land.ca does not have the definite answers, nor precisely draws out territorial boundaries. I only use this to get a starting point in an area I’m unfamiliar with.

Next, once you’ve found the tribe, nation, or Indigenous lands you wake up on, find their website and do some research. Now I mean some actual research, not just some wikipedia facts. If your teachers didn’t want you to use wikipedia, then Natives don’t want you to either. Also, stay away from those non-Native anthropologists if you can. Look at tribal websites and read what they want to tell you about, from their own stories and their own histories. Ask yourself now, how many times have you ever been on a tribal website? Once you’ve appropriately read up on each and every tribes’ website and historical facts in your area, think about how their histories have affected your lifestyle and knowledge systems. Like really think about it. Think about your job, your major, your lifestyle and how it has entangled Indigenous peoples’ histories. For example, if you’re a salmon scientist, think about Indigenous peoples struggle with subsistence, think about their stories of salmon, and think about how you can be more aware of those issues. Maybe you learned about the treaties that encompass the area you live in from the tribe’s website, then ask yourself why you didn’t know them before. Treaties are a two-way negotiation, involving everybody, not just Native people. That means it’s your treaty too.

Now, after you’ve learned about the history of the Indigenous people whose land you reside on, and have understood how you’ve entangled yourself, think about the roles and responsibilities you have to enriching the stories and success of Indigenous people and their communities. Maybe you’re a teacher and want to begin advocating for a curriculum that is for Indigenous people and by Indigenous people. Maybe you want to donate monetary funds to a tribe. Or, maybe you want to support Indigenous people in the media and go out of your way to share it with everyone. You have the power to make change and to not do the same thing each and every year.

Once you’ve made your land acknowledgement, once you’ve shared it with your friends and family, and once you know its something you’ll continue to do, go back to the tribal website that you first used to learn about this, find their phone number and call to ask, “Hi, how can I help?”

Due to the nature of COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic, I’m currently living in Ketchikan, Alaska. Over ZOOM and through various internet servers, I’d like to acknowledge the contemporary and ancestral lands of the Tlingit people whose waters are shared with the Tsimshian and Haida people. It’s our duty as writers to honor and respect their traditions and ceremonial cycles, from the salmon that continue to feed their families since time immemorial, to the songs that ensure reciprocity in their everyday lives.