Thoughts on Thanksgiving

As I enjoyed a huge dinner filled with Tofurkey and cranberry sauce today and the warm company of dear friends, my thoughts shifted to the controversial nature of the holiday. There’s much to appreciate about an occasion that celebrates gratitude, kindness and generosity. But as my friends talked about their Cherokee and Nez Perce heritages, and the ways of other first peoples in North America, I found my thoughts drifting to the tragic result of European colonization of this continent: broken treaties and biological warfare, genocide and treachery, destruction of the land, air and water, and the subjugation and forced relocation of indigenous people to tiny reservations. Some estimate that over 90 percent of the native population of North America died in post-contact epidemics and wars. That’s not the narrative we see in pop culture. Google “Thanksgiving” and you get photos of pumpkins and cartoon turkeys. In the lighthearted commercials and television episodes about Thanksgiving, we rarely if ever see any acknowledgment of these nasty aspects of American history.

The truth is, colonial history is shameful. If we are to tell the story about how Squanto helped suffering European settlers hundreds of years ago, then we need to say what happened next: Squanto’s relatives were eventually murdered as his people, and others like them were driven off their land. We also need to honor the original people of North America by listening to their stories and informing ourselves about who they are now as well as the ways their ancestors once lived in the world.

There are many good books out there about first peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including “Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archeology and Prehistory,” by Kenneth Ames; “Nch’i-Wana, ‘The Big River’: Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land,” by Eugene Hunn; and “Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America” by Douglas Deur and Nancy Turner. All of the above are scholarly works.

I recently purchased one of the newer books on this subject, called “The People of Cascadia,” a grant-funded, self-published volume by Heidi Bohan, who is an artist and educator with a great deal of experience living off-the-grid and deep relationships with Haida people. The book is a well-researched and accessible primer with many illustrations, and is suitable for readers of all ages. However, I have to mention that this book is also unfortunately riddled with errors in punctuation and grammar.

If you buy it, though, you do get to learn lots of fun facts. For instance, I was excited to read that native people of the 1700s shaved their faces, plucked their eyebrows, and bathed daily, perfuming themselves with plants, and that they regarded the European settlers they met as filthy because they bathed only once a week. I totally concur — all those modern-day Earth biscuits who think they are being “wild” when they sport unruly beards and stinky bodies are rather misguided.

Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. Please share this post, and go wild – wash up.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Thanksgiving

  1. This book looks great! I’ll see if I can get the PSU library to get one. The drawings look good — there is a series of books by Hilary Stewart on NW Coast peoples and their artifacts, also excellent. Cheers Cameron

  2. I was wondering if you recall any information in the books you recommended of the Native Americans that lived around the North Santiam River area? I think they were one of the Kalapooian tribes if I’m not mistaken. I have always wanted to know more about them but have found almost nothing. I really like your blog by the way.

    • I’m reading all three of those books at the same time right now, trying to school myself and get some context for where I live, so I can’t say yet whether North Santiam River gets a specific shout-out, but the books do describe a variety of tribes in Oregon and Washington state. They had diversity in their art, languages, customs and appearances, but they also had some things in common. I would say check out Bohan and Ames first and you would probably find some useful info.

  3. I prefer the idea of changing Columbus Day to Genocide Day. It’s a dark world now. Thanksgiving is the one holiday that is about family, friends and the good (bright) side of human nature.

    Everyday is a good day to be reflective on the past, but Thanksgiving is more about those around you whom you love. It’s about today not the past. And it should stay that way.

    Columbus Day really marks the start of the Genocide. It’s a more appropriate day for drawing attention to the Genocide.

    • That’s a good point, Tom. I suppose I think Thanksgiving could be a good occasion for learning not just about the bad stuff but also the good stuff — native history before European contact.

  4. I love your suggestion of taking thanksgiving as a day to educate ourselves about the true history of Indigenous North Americans, and trying to learn about our past, however uncomfortable it may be (considering the atrocities committed by european settlers). Many of the people I know simply dismiss thanksgiving as a gluttonous celebration of a white washed event , and don’t take the opportunity to get to understand the context around it. Thank you for providing some great resources that allow us to understand the true history of the land we stole and now call home.

  5. Correction: I probably should not have written “driven off their land,” because land was not thought of as an object to possess. “Driven from their homes” is probably more accurate.

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