For those of us who consider ourselves believers in social justice, reckoning with the Thanksgiving holiday can easily become hairy.

On the one hand, it is a rare opportunity for families, particularly those that are working class, to come together, eat delicious food (depending on who makes it) and strengthen their bonds. And yet, as law enforcement officers pepper spray Native activists at Standing Rock, set dogs on them and hose them down in frigid temperatures, the guilt behind grabbing a Turkey leg and proclaiming ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ has, for some of us, become much more difficult to ignore.

In an interview with Fusion, indigenous protesters at Standing Rock shared their passionate perceptions of the Thanksgiving holiday (or as Faith Spotted Eagle calls it, “Thankstaking”)

“We don’t see it as a happy time to celebrate with the pilgrims, because it really is about taking” Spotted Eagle remarked.

The disrespect and dehumanization that Native people have been forced to confront started long before plans to create a pipeline; the fact that this is what it took to focus the world’s attention on these abuses is an indictment of the collective failure to make space for the Native community within broader pushes for racial justice.

While present in many minority communities around the country, issues of environmental racism have plagued the Native community for centuries—literally. One pressing environmental issue aside from the Dakota Access Pipeline, is the U.S. government’s long history of creating toxic dump sites either on or in the vicinity of Native reservations, often through bribery. Many of these reservations are steeped in generational poverty due to high unemployment and waning resources, and the government has exploited this by offering tribes cash grants in exchange for housing dump sites.

But incidents like these only occur when government officials feel so kind as to, quite manipulatively, solicit the consent of Native communities. In many other cases, they create waste sites on the borders of reservations, just far enough away to dismiss claims of land treaty violations.

We have also excluded, to some extent, the voices and experiences of Native peoples in discussions of police brutality and mass incarceration. Having been made a small population through centuries of genocide, the number of Native people who get caught in the criminal justice or at the wrong end of a police officer’s gun has a big impact on the overall rate of affected people within their communities.

In fact, an investigative report from In These Times finds that Natives are killed by police at rates higher than any other racial demographic. But coverage of this issue is noticeably lacking in mainstream media. The notion that police violence or mass incarceration are beholden to one particular minority group severely underestimates the institutional racism embedded deep within the justice system.

As Native peoples are routinely (but especially this year) exploited, poisoned, jailed, killed and brutalized, how should we begin to reckon with a holiday steeped in a genocidal past and present? Can members of communities also plagued by centuries-long, institutional racism salvage a holiday that we have re-interpreted for the sake of our own histories? Are we all just social justice hypocrites?

Any attempt to address these questions must, for once, center the needs, wants and experiences of the Native community. But one thing is for sure, the solutions will not come overnight, and the comfort of non-Natives may very well have to be sacrificed.

Though, for the time being, we may attempt to personally reconcile with the Thanksgiving holiday in different ways, our efforts to listen to and uplift and engage in the indigenous struggle must become more of a priority.


(U.S. Air Force photo/Beau Wade)