Five Ways for White Folx to Change the Narrative of Thanksgiving

It is an old township, and early in the history of this county it embraced an extended area. It derived its name from the fact that when the early settlers came in from Westmoreland County and elsewhere as early as 1794, they discovered, much to their surprise, a large square of cleared land. From its general indication it was concluded that it was an Indian corn-field. There was no doubt in the minds of the pioneers but that the cultivation was recent, as the ground was still soft and loamy. The name Clearfield, was, therefore, very appropriate, for nothing was further from the minds of the early pioneers than the thought of discovering an arena such as that in the dense and almost impenetrable forests of this portion of the country, and at so early a period. ~ History of Butler County Pennsylvania – 1883, page 292. 

Our family holidays are pretty low-key with the biggest challenge being a lack of leftovers available to these lesbian aunts. We have no Trumpers in our immediate midst so we can all commiserate without being derailed by fake news. The food is usually good. No one is forced to listen to a blaring football game and no one gets sloppy drunk.

Still, it is basically a glorified family dinner. When they were younger, the kids would make some little decorations but we aren’t a religious family or prone to stop to focus on gratitude before a meal. After a chaotic round of holidays during my childhood, I am extremely grateful for a boring family dinner and hope to have many to come.

Still, I do feel an obligation to lean past the superficial expression of why I’m grateful and honor the privilege and sacrifices that made it possible. No one in my family is prone to join me in this endeavor so I’m doing the best I can to continue each year. I’m inspired in part by the success of restructuring Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. It has been a slow process, but it feels inevitable because of the very hard work of community activists to shift the entire narrative around this construct. The same can happen for Thanksgiving.


First, I simply acknowledge that Thanksgiving is irrevocably tied to trauma and harm, both historical and current, for our Native American and all Indigenous neighbors.

The opening paragraph is directly from a family genealogy documenting how my recent ancestors settled in Clearfield Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania between 1790-1830. They found a corn field, clearly created by someone who already lived on the land and decided this was a sign from God, not a sign to keep looking for unoccupied land. It doesn’t get much more blunt and sanitized than that.

Second, I acknowledge that the land where I celebrate Thanksgiving and the land where I live and work was not mine to inherit. The region’s Indigenous cultures are many, not one monolithic group. Their presence stretches back to at least 12,000 BC when Meadowcroft in what we now know as Washington County was a stopping ground for people passing through this region. These lands were stewarded by many Indigenous nations. The Osage and other Dhegian-Siouan speaking people. The  Adena tribe. The Hopewell tribe, followed by the Monongahela people, who lived here until the early 17th century. Later, colonial decisions by European settlers forced Shawnee, Delaware, and Seneca peoples to move into this region.  Read more about Land Acknowledgements at Teen Vogue.

Third, I participate in Indigenous led events when possible. In Pittsburgh, some events are led by Lee and Earl Dingus through the Echoes of the Four Directions organization. Our County parks often schedule events featuring Lee and Earl, ranging from lectures to actual hikes. There is also the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center.

Giving Thanks Indigenous
Image by dignidadrebelde and used with permission by the copyright. Visit https://dignidadrebelde.com/

Fourth, I try to educate myself on the histories and current stories of Indigenous residents of this land. In Pittsburgh, I am careful to read content shared during Native American History month by my actual friends of Indigenous descent and the socially just organizations I trust. I’ve learned to let go of what I learned in grade school and use smart searches to find reputable sources and step away from the inaccurate information. I’m watching the 2018 PBS Series ‘Native Amerca’ over the holidays along with my usual parades and Thanksgiving specials. You can find a lot of Native created content to incorporate into your family media viewing.

Fifth, I share good content, specifically signal boosting content created by Indigenous persons. I spent about an hour today scheduling social media content for the next few days from sources I value. That sounds a bit awkward, but it is a genuine attempt on my part to use my own resources to share important content, not just memes or awkward jokes. This is the essence of the #AMPLIFY projects – using my own tools to circulate content without adding my spin.

Also, there is always the option to donate to a Native led organization.

The most important thing for me is to recognize that I don’t get to just do some combination of these things on Thanksgiving, then put it out of my mind the rest of the year. Decolonizing my own mind is my responsibility. I hope that when I revisit this post in 2020, I’ll have new information to add and new resources to share. And that I will be part of the momentum to change the narrative around Thanksgiving to honor our actual legacy as white Americans living on Indigenous lands.

To be honest, I feel I’ve made the least progress with understanding the Indigenous history of my hometown and current residence, Pittsburgh. I also feel a heavier weight when I think of how colonization of Europe and the creation of white culture has cut me off from my own very ancestral ties to Indigenous cultures. I recognize that even though I have so much privilege from being worn white in Pittsburgh in this era, colonization has had negative impacts on my life and my story. Resisting oppression is important for my survival, too.

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