During a meeting last week one of my students commented that she loves Thanksgiving, but feels guilty about it.
She didn’t need to explain—she was in my Culture and Identity class last year which focused on Native Americans and First Nations people. We talked about the problematic nature of Thanksgiving and the many myths surrounding the holiday that are destructive to Native peoples.
I can relate to her comment. As a White multi-racial woman, Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday for me. My mother is Irish and Cherokee. My father is English American, and our family narratives are filled with pilgrim origin stories. See. Complicated.
I will offer for my student and others what I try to do instead of attempting to suppress White guilt, or feeling overwhelmed by White guilt, or congratulating myself for experiencing White guilt (none of which are particularly helpful actions). Instead, I suggest these strategies:
1. Expand your knowledge and awareness of Native history, current events, and Native peoples.
This year, I am focusing on Indian removal policies and the implications of living on stolen land.
The National Museum of the American Indian released online curriculum about Indian removal policies. The curriculum is designed to support Social Studies teachers for grades 7-12, but I am gonna go out on a limb and guess that most of my readers were never taught this material in school, so this can be a good place to start.
The Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. It was this act that led to the Trail of Tears. In the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839, over 7,000 troops were sent to Cherokee homes, where people were removed at gunpoint and forced to march west. Approximately 4,000 people died along the way. The Indian Removal Act also directly impacted the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw Nation.
Pennsylvania reflects the deep impacts of removal, as there are currently no federally recognized Indian nations within the state today, despite the fact that the area was once home to the Shawnee and Ohio, the Erie, members of the Iroquois nations, the Munsee Delaware and Lenape Delaware and the Susquehannock nations.
One of my friends recently commented that the term “removal” seems to be a way to dismiss the horror of these laws and policies. Which is by design. Tools of state sanctioned genocide are often given fluffy names to avoid calling them what they really are.
The Indian Removal Act was just one piece of legislation among many laws, policies, coerced and broken treaties which moved native peoples from their homes and historic lands. These policies continue to infringe on the rights of Native nations and endanger the health and well-being of Native people today. (Think Standing Rock) They also mean that the United States is a nation built on stolen land.
This week I attended a conference in Minneapolis for the Interdisciplinary Research Fellows, a group collaborating on community engaged research for social change. The conference opened with a Dakota language specialist (Neil T McKay) who asked us to consider what it means to be working toward building equitable communities on stolen land.
I think this topic is especially important to examine at Thanksgiving. This is a time when many people focus on home—going home or welcoming others into their homes. For Americans of all ethnic groups, home is not an uncomplicated place. Homecomings may be fraught with anxieties of past family conflict, different political beliefs, or the impacts of trauma.
For Native peoples, home is often the place that was stolen.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am struggling with my own family’s history of homelessness and being uprooted through removal, living in poverty on reservations, avoiding Indian boarding schools, and forced assimilation. All of these policies and traumas interrupted the ability for my family to have an embodied experience of home. The loss of my own home last spring makes this particular soul wound especially raw for me this year.
I am thankful that I will spend this year's holiday with dear friends—the people I call my Pittsburgh family. This week I will also be reflecting on what it means to celebrate Thanksgiving on stolen land.
In addition to buying supplies to make a sweet potato casserole and stocking up on white wine, I will be learning more about the people who once called Pittsburgh their home. People like the Shawnee who were pushed into Ohio and forced to sign a treaty in 1831 that removed them to eastern Kansas.
While I drink my morning coffee I will be reading As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson) and learning about the ways Indigenous communities continue to engage in resistance to protect their land and people.
As I hike the beautiful woods of Western Pennsylvania, I will reflect on those who called this place home before me. I will work to heal my own wounds as I strive to live in a way that honors my ancestors. And I will continue to reflect on the meaning of doing equity work on stolen land, even as I dedicate myself to building a space that I may call home.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.