(Re)Writing Thanksgiving: Runners Up

Dec 1, 2021

Last week we announced the first winner of the contest to find a modern alternative to The Wall Street Journal’s Thanksgiving editorial. “The Desolate Wilderness” is written by a 17th century pilgrim and full of antiquated and false descriptions of indigenous people. Petition starter Randy and his 50,000 signers think it’s time for something better, which lead to (Re)Writing Thanksgiving.

Almost 40 people submitted essays for consideration. Randy ultimately selected a non-indigenous retired Lutheran pastor for first prize – click here to read his thoughts on why. Today, we’re excited to share the two runner up essays written by Alexis Bunten, an Alaska Native writer who co-directs the Bioneers Indigeneity Program, and Kristen Wraback, a Native American poet who advocates for radical self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.

Alexis Bunten is an Alaska Native writer who co-directs the Bioneers Indigeneity Program. She holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from UCLA, and has taught at UCLA, and Humboldt State University. She has written numerous articles about Native American and Indigenous topics, and has been featured in Forbes, the Washington Post and the Seattle Times. Alexis’ has authored several books and has two forthcoming children’s books, “Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story” with Charlesbridge Press, and “What Your Ribbon Skirt Means to Me: Deb Haaland’s Historic White House Inauguration” with Little, Brown and Company.

2021 marked the 400th anniversary of the “first Thanksgiving.” This year’s Thanksgiving was special for reasons beyond commemorating the feast shared between the Pilgrims and Indians so many years ago. We are in the middle of a serious cultural shift to recognize and respect the Indigenous peoples of this continent as real, living peoples and not just victims of the past. With the removal of professional sports teams’ racist mascots, more accurate Native American representation in the media than ever before, and the proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day on October 11, now is the time to make Thanksgiving more inclusive by decolonizing this holiday.

As an Alaska Native who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, learning about Thanksgiving was discombobulating. What did “Pilgrims and Indians” have to do with my roots? The East Coast was impossibly far away. Presumably because of my appearance, I was forced to play “the Indian” in Thanksgiving performances. It felt bad, but I was too young to fully understand and articulate the reason why. As an adult, I now know that it’s because Thanksgiving is most Americans’ only exposure to Native peoples.

What does it mean to ”Decolonize Thanksgiving”? Settler colonialism is the foundation of how we came to live in the US. We live in a country founded on stolen land that has been extracted for resources, and settled by people whose ancestors are from other continents. For many people, ‘decolonizing’ refers to undoing the ways of thinking that contribute to settler colonialism. A simple way to begin is to learn the real history behind the holiday. We can learn to correct the false narratives taught in school that uphold the logic behind unequal white access to resources and wealth.

As parents of young children, my friends, Danielle Greendeer (Mashpee Wampanoag) and Anthony Perry (Chickasaw), and I felt a need to reach children when they are first exposed to the Thanksgiving myth. We asked ourselves, “how would we have wanted to be introduced to Thanksgiving as a young child in a culturally affirming way?” We co-authored Keepunumuk, Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story, a picture book for 3 to 8 year olds that presents the Thanksgiving holiday from a Native point of view.

Learning about Indigenous relationships to the land and our interdependent obligations with the plants and animals we share it with is another way to decolonize our minds. Instead of thinking of land, animals and other humans as things to exploit, we should relate to them as interdependent relatives who help us to thrive. We can put this into action by making sure that we are thankful for all these things at Thanksgiving.

We should also be aware that most of what we eat at the Thanksgiving table are foods indigenous to the Americas. We can acknowledge that the turkey, squash, corn, and cranberries on the traditional menu are from this continent. Eating these traditional foods sourced in organic, non-GMO and non factory-farmed ways is a way to decolonize your diet, while making more sustainable choices for the earth’s health.

It’s easy to introduce these traditions into your household for Thanksgiving without giving up football. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to visit bioneers.org/thanksgiving where you can read more articles about how to decolonize your thanksgiving, access culturally accurate curriculum, and find more resources.

For this 400 year anniversary, I joined the National day of Mourning organized by the United American Indians of New England on November 25 at noon at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts. You can learn more about this event and how to join it live or via livestream in future years by visiting the website of the organizers, United American Indians of New England. At this pivotal time in America’s history, what are you going to do to decolonize Thanksgiving?

Kristen Wraback is an indigenous poet who advocates for radical self-sufficiency and food sovereignty by growing, foraging, and cooking native plant species. Her life’s mission is to educate people about indigenous culture and to demonstrate what a compassionate, self-sourced life can look like.

Hands For Carving

This land was a feast for the eyes,
And a treasure for the hands.
Scores of rolling hills,
all untouched by any man.
One day a people came,
And they formed their loving clans.
Their relation to the Earth turned terrain into homeland.

One day more people came,
And saw men with skin more tan.
The Natives preferred peace,
But the white men claimed the land.
They could either choose to fight,
Or they screamed and ran.
Men could wipe out a village
With the bark of a command.

At the initial feast,
Natives brought much more than yams.
They brought the best of their harvest
With a friendly, outstretched hand.
A generation later,
Those white men killed their clan
Of 700 people.
Woman, child, and man.

It is no feeble art
To consume a thriving land,
When the needle of your compass
Points into the heart of man.
The planet has no owner,
Yet is grasped by greedy hands.
It holds only for a moment,
‘Till it falls like dry sand.

Our hands are meant for carving,
What we carve is up to us.
In the world we can carve fear,
Or we can carve a sense of trust.
Trust for our neighbors,
No more judgements unjust.
We must learn to savor
Our time here before we’re dust.