Pass the Potatoes and Be An Ally

Today is Thanksgiving, one of the USA’s most cherished national holidays.

Before anything else, I’d like to say the following: this month is Native American Heritage Month. This article was written on occupied Ramaytush Ohlone Land. I would like to acknowledge the Ramaytush people today for their land which I live on without permission, the land which allows me to eat and live and survive. The history that allows me to be here is unjust. I would like to acknowledge the Yokut people of today’s central valley whose land keeps California fed. This history is unjust.

Like many of our nation’s origin stories, Thanksgiving rallies around the American ideal of outsiders finding a new home far away from their own, overcoming adversity, and prospering. Like many of our nation’s origin stories, this ideal is often selectively applied. It favors white settlers and positively spins relations and events that likely never happened, or at least didn’t happen the way we want to think they did.

Thanksgiving is a historically selective holiday. It glorifies a factually nebulous dinner that occurred sometime in the 1600s–we don’t know with certainty which one. Thanksgiving was officially established as a holiday in 1863. At the time, Native Americans still could not be American citizens. They were, however, allowed to fight in the Civil War. Native peoples fought for both the confederacy and the union, knowing that they were likely to lose their sovereignty, culture, and ancestral lands if they ended up on the losing side.

Sadly, it didn’t matter who won the civil war. Our country and our leaders took rights and lands away from Native populations before and after the civil war and continue to do so today. We should know that as we eat our Thanksgiving dinners, Native Americans are the most food insecure population in the United States. And remember Standing Rock? At the beginning of this month, Native American Heritage Month, 383,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a North Dakota wetland.

The history of Thanksgiving glosses over the genocide and environmental destruction that this country endorsed to build itself, and celebrates instead a superficial ideal of cooperation that many of us don’t even practice with our own family at the Thanksgiving table.

That being said, I believe that Thanksgiving can be different than the holiday that it is now, and it starts with self-awareness and a desire to acknowledge the ways that most of us have benefitted from this heinous history.

First, know whose land you occupy. “Native American” is a broad term, and encompasses a vast array of tribes and ethnic populations. Take a moment now to look it up, acknowledge it, and read some history ( Before you eat, take a moment honor and respect the native lives lost in the process of forming this country as well as their surviving ancestors and sovereign nations which fight every day for their right to exist.

Additionally, please remember to honor and respect the farm workers who have been underpaid and overworked to bring you the food that you are eating. Remember to honor and respect immigrants too–those who have fled to this country to overcome adversity and have been thrown in jail or marginalized instead of being given the chance to prosper.

It may be surprising to hear, after all of the above, that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It has an ugly history, yes. But it is also the only holiday that centers solely on spending time with important people in your life. No presents, just food and people. I think this day carries a lot of opportunity to educate ourselves and our families. Dinner tables are one of the most powerful stages for change—if we can’t talk to people and educate each other in localized settings first, we can’t expect the same to happen on the national level.

It’s Thanksgiving. Our nation is flawed. Our holiday is flawed. But there’s opportunity. We can apply the spirit of cooperation that this holiday holds dear so much more thoughtfully and purposefully. Let’s build real bridges.

Here’s some places to start:

This Thanksgiving, pass the potatoes and be an ally: acknowledge the land you occupy and educate yourself about our country’s exploitation and genocide of indigenous peoples. Learn your local history and share it with your family. And though words and thoughts are nice, funds are even nicer. Donate if you can. I’ll start first.