Protest, Mourning & Remembrance (Personal Notes on Thanksgiving)

“Well, here we go with another holiday that America loves to celebrate, Thanksgiving Day. I know this has been said numerous times by many Native people of this country, but it is just not a day for many of us to celebrate. Although some things have improved on some reservations, there are an overwhelming number of us that have nothing to celebrate. These are the people who still have my concern, my hope and my love that things will get better. I’m talking about the people of Big Mountain, some of whom have already received their eviction notices. It’s about the Western Shoshone, about the people all over this continent who are fighting for their treaty rights and sovereignty. It’s about the people in Chiapas, the people in Central and South America who are being tortured and slaughtered every day. It is about the people whose stories we do not hear. The people who are resisting by simply surviving the “third world” conditions that they live under in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

As you gather today at this historic spot, remember those who struggled and gave their lives before you. Remember those who are in prison and those who are being tortured and denigrated today. Remember those who gave you the teachings that were handed down generation to generation. Remember as you continue the struggle for justice and equality in this land that is ours to caretake…Thanksgiving is every day. Wake up and thank the Creator for a new day every day.” ~Leonard Peltier, 1998 Thanksgiving Statement

Thanksgiving is a tricky concept for me.  On the one hand, the moment of pause, reflection, and gratitude that the concept suggests is one that I support.  On the other hand, we have enshrined yet another European celebration/manifestation.  The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) actually offers a short lesson plan and extended curriculum for grades 4-8 that help classroom teachers begin to dig deeper into the ongoing imagination of the Indigenous people breaking bread with the  “pilgrims” at the “First Thanksgiving” in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Certainly, Indigenous nations have designed systems for giving thanks to the earth but the trope of Thanksgiving that we often celebrate is actually a mixture of Puritan religious practices and  European festivals of Harvest Home (which included sports, like our current marriage of Thanksgiving with football), and that incorporated the Indigenous foodways that we take for granted.  All of this information is widely known and accessible and yet most elementary kids will still come home with the same things that were used to teach me about Thanksgiving more than 30 years ago: sketches where you trace your fingers and make that into a turkey; some sort of headband with a paper feather; and/or drawings or texts that enshrine pilgrims in that classic black and white attire.  I can walk for ten minutes, in any ethnic direction, through the segregated neighborhoods of my Hometown-Brooklyn and tell when there are small children in the home: these textual representations of the myth and dominant fantasy of Thanksgiving are glued everywhere to front windows and doors this week.

I don’t think I can afford to ignore these tensions when the United American Indians of New England (UAIME) have declared Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning since 1970.  Instead, the UAIME marks this day as one of remembrance and spiritual connection alongside protest of the racism and oppressions that Indigeneous Nations experience NOW. This year’s 43rd Day of Mourning is dedicated to the political prisoner and artist, Leonard Peltier (all artwork on this page is by Peltier). I see the UAIME as letting us know that we all have some mourning to do.  And even though I won’t be attending the Day of Mourning in Massachusetts this year, I recognize, in both my head and heart, the remembrances, spiritual connections, and fight against oppression that the UAIME represent.  I also recognize, in my head and heart, the very gift of seeing the new day, the Thanksgiving everyday, as Peltier suggests. So this Thanksgiving will mean doing some small-scale recognizing of events and people in my individual life alongside the large-scale work of recognizing and mourning human loss under oppression.

As corny as it may sound and as trite in comparison to the history I have talked about here, I want to remember my closest friends and family, making sure that I recognize who they are and what they bring to my life.  I think about a girlfriend with a family, home, exacting teaching load, heavy service expectations at her university, administrative assignments, and publication demands who never, never once, put me aside when I needed to think through some piece of writing or idea I was working on, though her schedule doesn’t easily accommodate the time and depth we usurp for our emailing alone.  I will never consume her real-time support and spirit and then dissolve her presence by comparing/juxtaposing her with someone else.  That kind of consumption would only mean that I have sacrificed her collegiality, friendship, and loyalty to the forces of oppression in an inability to recognize her true, unique value.  As simple as it seems, maintaining friendships and the value of human lives outside of the patterns of exploitation that permeate everything is quite radical: that’s how I understand the remembrance that UAIME asks of us.

I think about my mentors who, just in their letters of reference, took the time to craft words that offered such vivid descriptions of me that I sound like no one else and who, in turn, made me see who I am.  They seemingly transformed even a bureaucratic and bourgeois process so that I would not be another woman-thing in the academy to be institutionally-exchanged, discussed, dissected or claimed as an object of ownership, desire, or tokenism.  I recognize their ability to stand outside of the current econo-cultural climate and really see and do.  I think about my real friends and family who let me be BOTH weak and strong, loud and quiet, scared and bold, focused and confused and who never conflate my achievement of professional success with my experience of joy and pain.  I think about girlfriends with whom I mine the darkest depths of trauma and hurt— both theirs and my own— without letting that dictate a negative path and spirit for our conversations and very foundations of friendship/soulship.  Living one’s life past/beyond oppression is no small task but, at least amongst one another, we have offered one another our whole selves with realness, clarity, and vision.

That we have survived is a feat in and of itself. When it comes right down to it, it’s about connection and remembrance… and sustenance through the material, everyday practices of what we say and do.  Although the culture sets us up to alienate the very real labor of maintaining friends and family in our daily lives, we do not have to abide by that culture.  That’s the kind of Thanksgiving worth having.