Thanksgiving: indigenous people don’t need your gratitude, they need justice

Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

Thanksgiving is an uncomfortable holiday. No – I’m not talking about your too-drunk aunt or your grandfather’s offensive political views.

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The holiday is founded in a lie – and perpetuates that lie. And when you consider what indigenous people in the United States continue to endure, it’s downright embarrassing.

Thanksgiving was not established as an official holiday until 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, as a thank you to Civil War soldiers and an attempt to unify the country. But the event it’s supposedly rooted in is heavily disputed. Regardless if the story of the first Thanksgiving is true (it’s not) the events that followed, in short, were of genocide and erasure.

I come from a half-Jewish half-Catholic family, so Thanksgiving temptingly feels like a neutral celebration of gratitude and food. But we know the story of friendship and the narrative of indigenous people as an extinct people to be false.

Last Friday, I went to the Navajo reservation, family friends who are Diné (Navajo) invited my family to butcher a lamb and eat with them. We were showed a small home where this family’s badass mother raised 12 children without running water or electricity – the Benett Land Freeze prevented anybody from developing the land. Under the Navajo Treaty of 1868, all 12 of those children were forced to go to boarding school.

Also last Friday I saw young cousins of mine on social media dressed as “Indians.” White first graders still are wearing headdresses made of construction paper feathers, fed false tales of friendship and taught to understand indigenous people as extinct, complicit in their colonization, and mostly a fun costume.

Then on Monday, a Nebraska commission voted to approve the Keystone Pipeline XL, despite concerns from indigenous people that it threatens culturally sacred land and water quality. The pipeline was approved even when earlier in the week an already existing portion of Keystone Pipeline less than 400 miles away burst – leaking more than 200,000 gallons of oil into a farmer’s field.

This decision fell close to the holiday, so they’re on my mind, but they’re just recent events that are part of an endless list of contemporary injustices against indigenous people.

Indigenous people in the US are killed by police at the highest rate of any ethnic group. Earlier this November news that the police fatally shot 14-year-old Jason Pero on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin brought media attention back to the pattern of injustice. The boy was supposedly shot for lunging with a butcher’s knife.

So Thanksgiving is uncomfortable.

You have the week off— I’m not asking you to not visit your family, or not to enjoy food. I do implore you not to make construction-paper headdresses for your younger family members.

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Perpetuating a myth of harmony makes us at minimum complicit in the atrocities that take place against indigenous people. It’s a missed opportunity to reflect on all that is owed to indigenous people.

The debt is much greater than a saved harvest.

Collegian Managing Editor Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick can be reached at managingeditor@collegian.com or on Twitter @tatianasophiapt.