By Kate Fontana, Source Yoga community member and teacher
What do you do with a holiday once you realize it’s racist?
I’ve sought to deepen into sacred days and seasons by looking with a kind and critical eye at the traditions and “sacred” things of my family, ancestry and culture. Over the last few years I have been learning about and troubled by the actual history of Thanksgiving, which originally marked the horrific (but not isolated) massacre of the Pequot Indians.
It is disturbing to me that I didn’t know the real history of this immense cultural trauma until my 30s (if it’s news to you too, it’s not your fault, that’s one way whiteness and white supremacy works—through unconscious consent to historical erasure. You can amend that by reading on here).
Friends, colleagues, and my own research and conscious have led me to realize that by ignoring the history of this day and white-washing it with gratitude we are contributing to the continued invisibility of the worldwide genocide of indigenous peoples.
So then what are some alternative ways to engage with this day? Here are some ideas that I’ve tried, considered, or that have been shared with me. Do note—I’ve numbered these for clarity, but I place no moral value on any one over another.
As you read these, feel where they land in your body.
Notice where you feel dissonance and resonance and be curious about that. Where do these land amidst your own racial identity and awareness, and/or other significant identity markers? You will know what’s right for you—and you may have other ideas, which I’d love to hear!
To be clear: I am white, non-native, and with marginal (but growing!) knowledge and peripheral (but growing!) engagement in indigenous history and issues. I am learning, unpacking my whiteness, ever inadequately, and no stand alone list can possibly be an adequate response to depth of harm and trauma that has occurred and continues to occur to our native communities. I am open to feedback and critique and being shown gaps in my awareness.
Also, obviously thanks to our unrelenting teacher, the global COVID-19 pandemic, all holidays will be different this year. I hope you are can remain safe and healthy, and perhaps take it as an opportunity to learn, unlearn, and really choose what this time can be for you and your family. May these ideas be a start, an opening for conversation and more, and may we be called ever deeper into the sacred work and beauty of our collective healing.
1. Acknowledge the indigenous ancestors of the land you are on.
Check out native-land.ca/, or get the Native Land app. If you’re having a meal, consider lighting a candle and/or saying a word of acknowledgement to the indigenous stewards of the land you are on at the start or end. You might acknowledge that for many Native folks in the U.S., this day is a National Day of Mourning.
2. Just opt out.
The friend and educator who first taught me about the origin of Thanksgiving said that she and her family just treat it like another day. This is actually no small feat, against the powerful current of culture and family—although this year might offer some unexpected relief on the social pressure front. Go for a walk and work in the garden or go to work or take a bath. Let it just be a day
3. Learn about and respectfully engage in the efforts of indigenous communities where you are.
If you’re in my neck of the woods, last year at this time, indigenous folks from across the state, under the grassroots organizing body Protectors of the Salish Sea, camped out at the state capital for over a month (pictured above). They marched to Olympia from September 23rd, demanding that Governor Jay Inslee declare a climate emergency and respond with specific corrective actions. They have had frequent public actions since then, and had a peaceful celebratory action at the Governors house on Thanksgiving Day. Additionally, Puyallup Tribal leaders remain concerned with the liquid natural gas plant that has been constructed without tribal consent on tribal land in the Tacoma tide flats.
But in addition to being aware of indigenous struggles, consider learning about and respectfully engaging with the creative beauty and resilience of Indigenous folks. For example: First Nations at the University of Washington has historically hosted “Take Back the Dinner” on around Thanksgiving, an event open to the public celebrating indigenous & international cultures. The Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, on Duwamish tribal lands in Seattle, hosts their annual Native Arts Market (pending, given COVID etc). Of course many in-person events won’t be happening this year, but some may potentially be more accessible nationwide online. Do a little searching about what may be happening in your area. More importantly, try to stay engaged year round (not just when white guilt kicks in around this time of year)(this is a challenge for me!).
4. Fast (or “OptOut Option 2).
Fasting has been a practice of spiritual formation as well as protest for generations of mystics and activists. It doesn’t have to be from food necessarily, particularly for anyone who is sick, on their moon time, pregnant, or with a complex relationship with food; but if you can do so in a healthy way, consider: being at your family feast and abstaining. I’ve done this a few years running, and you know, it’s one of those, “What difference am I really making?” kinds of practices—which in the end, like every act of resistance, may only be a prayer of solidarity, formative of who I choose to be and what choices I can make to be in my integrity. I will be fasting this Thanksgiving in honor of the National Day of Mourning, and donating “feast” funds to local indigenous-led sovereignty efforts. I invite you to join me in any capacity (fast from media, negativity, alcohol, shopping, you choose something that’s meaningful for you)—and let me know so we can support each other!
5. Spend time with the land and listen.
Really listen, with your body and your spirit and your senses. What is the land asking of you right now? How is the particular land upon which you live calling you into greater stewardship? This might feel like gratitude or it might feel like grieving—or some combination of both. I like to do a contemplative walk Thanksgiving morning somewhere in the woods, and just spend time with the trees and the dirt. You can do this in your yard or in your home.
I’m far from the first person to write about this, and there are so many other resources out there on this topic. I found “A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families” Compiled by Center for Racial Justice in Education particularly intriguing and useful!
EDIT: A dear friend of mine pointed out that they’re down with all of the above revamps, but still longing for the family, food and snuggly fall feels that have always been attached to Thanksgiving. I get it—it used to be my favorite holiday for those exact reasons (without the gift-giving pressures of Christmas!). This conversation prompted me to add that the practice I’ve been working towards implementing in my family over the past few years is to have a separate Ancestor Harvest banquet, sometime October or earlier in November. I think it’s ok to glean the parts of these days that feel healthy and aligned, and quite important actually that we establish new celebrations of beauty and connection. This is a part of restoring culture.
Here’s the letter I sent out to my family about this proposed new holiday. Please feel free to adapt to your own needs and context! You can read some of my other reflections about healing relationships with ancestors (especially for white folks) here.
What are your ideas? What’s beautiful and/or challenging about Thanksgiving for you? What are your intentions for this year’s “Thanksgiving” observances, amidst pandemic, uprising, and all other 2020 surprises? Let me know in the comments below!
With warmth and persistence,
Kate Fontana is Co-Founder and Steward of the Sanctuary Northwest, a center for trauma resilience, spiritual wellness, and cultural restoration. Our mission is to transform the lives of trauma survivors for the better, and nurture strong resilient families, communities and ecosystems where all life thrives. Visit us at www.thesanctuarynorthwest.com