The Paradox of Thanksgiving: Trying to Be An Ally to Native Americans

Source: Children's Defense Fund
Source: Children’s Defense Fund

Thanksgiving has become a weird time for me and for a lot of members in the US who consider themselves culturally sensitive. Since I’ve been outside of the U.S. for the last two Thanksgivings, I’ve been able to distance myself from some of the holiday commercialism but I’ve also missed seeing my family. But even before then, the holiday started to bring up some uneasy feelings. Growing up in the U.S. you are told that Thanksgiving is to celebrate the pilgrims and “Indians” – really Native Americans- coming together to share a meal and celebrate their union. However, as I’ve grown older and as political correctness has become more standard in the US country, the truth about the relationship between the pilgrims and Native Americans has been blurred.

I was always told growing up that I should be proud of my family connections to these events. I can trace my linage back to an influential person in the Plymouth colony, who traveled over on the Mayflower. But after researching a few years ago, on a Thanksgiving Day, I found something that stated that this man had a large part in the conflict between the pilgrims and the Native Americans, which resulted in the death of hundreds Native American. I’m unsure if this detail is true but either way I know that the movement of colonizers to the now United States, was never really in the best interest of the indigenous people. My ancestors arrival in this country resulted in the death of millions of Native Americans and the destruction of their culture. How do you celebrate a history that hurt so many people? And how is our history still so one-sided that still aren’t hearing from minority groups?

While I doubt that I would fully stop celebrating it once I return to the U.S. because I do like that it is a time for my whole family to be together. I do think that I will continue adding some more culturally appropriate activities to the day to celebrate Indigenous People.

In Plymouth Massachusetts, Native Americans protest in a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day.

One such celebration that I attended a few years ago is the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island. This celebrate is truly beautiful and something I would make a yearly tradition if I ever moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area.


Take note of the graffiti behind the sign
Take note of the graffiti behind the sign

The Indigenous People’s Sunrise Gathering starts with a boat ride to Alcatraz Island early morning of Thanksgiving Day. While the island typically acts as a tourist destination of the abandoned prison that held some of the most notorious criminals in history, few know that it was built on stolen Native American land. After the prison shut down a group of Native Americans tried to reclaim the land since it was no longer being used; they occupied the island for 19 months before a blockade was put up and they could no longer get food and supplies to the Island. Many people believe that the land was turned into a National Park to stop the Native Americans from reclaiming the land.

On Thanksgiving the island is alive with a huge bonfire and flourishes with Indigenous culture, dress and customs.   Several thousand people watch and partake in ritual dances around the fire.   The entire island smells of burning sage, meant to cleanse the body and mind. And you can feel a sense of spiritual camaraderie in the air. It is truly a beautiful and eye-opening experience.

The experience felt completely counter-intuitive to everything I had been told about Thanksgiving as a child. The day shattered away this myth that my ancestors did the right thing by coming here. I’m not saying I’m ashamed of my heritage but rather than we need to listen to more than just the dominate story. We need to connect to the people who were hurt by our history- including those who are in similar situations now, those who are surviving genocides currently- and we need to really listen to them and connect to them. Indigenous people in America are still fighting for their rights in today and we still aren’t listening. If the people in North Dakota were are sisters, brothers and friends- we would listen. We need to listen and connect to these people instead of shooting bullets and mace. I believe that through connections we would have the ability to help them, to empathize with them, which we really need in America today.

Details of this event:

This year the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Gathering is on Thursday November 24th and is completely open to the public. You can buy tickets on the Alcatraz website for $14. I suggest you get to the dock at least an hour before your boat time. It’s incredible how many people show up for this event but as a result it takes a long time to get over to the island.

You’ll notice that I didn’t post photos from this event. While you can find photos of it online, the dances during the event are religious and thus the organizers ask that you do not take photos or video.

If you want to become more of an activist for Indigenous People –or at least become more aware- be sure to read 7 thoughtful ways to be an ally to Native Americans on Thanksgiving.



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Megan is from sunny California and is currently living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She funds her travels by teaching students with learning challenges and students applying to U.S. universities. She loves traveling like a local, eating amazing food and is always up for an adventure. Check out her about me section to learn more!

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