Essayist: Why I Don’t Celebrate Thanksgiving

Indigenous chef Elena Terry shares what Thanksgiving means to her.


The day designated for acknowledging the things I’m grateful for. In my culture, I have been taught to give thanks every day, not just on the one day of the year that other people say we should be the most grateful.

I myself don’t celebrate the day called Thanksgiving. For me, what we are celebrating is the arrival of colonialism. It symbolizes the day when everything changed for our people — the day of the symbolic First Thanksgiving meal they taught us about via theater when we were children.

Each year in our school reenactment, I was selected to play the token Indian. In those performances, we always greeted the Pilgrims with smiles and open arms. In actuality, the arrival of Europeans brought sickness, genocide, greed, devastation, mistreatment, malnourishment, forced religious conversion and the theft of our children. Their arrival embedded intergenerational trauma into my people. Yet here we are, hundreds of years later, still celebrating and honoring their arrival with abundantly set tables that contain many of our traditional foods.

You see, for us, sharing a meal is a high honor. When we traveled to see each other, we were greeted at our destination with a meal to replenish what the journey may have taken. We cared for each other and made sure that if someone was without, our clan or tribe would help. It was never about overindulgence but about sharing resources and honoring the bounty of the land.

From the beginning of time, Native peoples have been stewards of this beautiful land. We have lived interconnectedly with this land. We honor the beautiful natural connection we have with Mother Earth and cherish the reciprocal relationship that has been shared for generations.

The atrocities committed against Native peoples across the diverse cultures throughout what we call Turtle Island still affect us. The effects of colonialism run deep throughout our communities. Everything from our foods and families to our religion and culture has been affected by forced European ideologies. Our homelands were stolen — and now those atrocities are spoken about through a simple “land acknowledgement,” but there’s no intention of returning ownership to the original inhabitants. Of course, I’m speaking of the Native peoples who are so deeply connected to said spaces, so much so that we have stories about creation and religion that connect our peoples to the spaces in which we lived. Yet here we are, in the year 2022, still being told we should be grateful for the “civilized” world and that we should be giving thanks for what the colonists brought. I’ll tell you what, I am not grateful for those actions and I will not be giving thanks.

I will, however, continue to celebrate the beautiful souls who see us as a people — who see us all as human beings who are at a place where change needs to happen, where we are able to take action. We are in a moment when we can seize the opportunity to be inspirational ancestors — when we can shift our thinking, when the reclamation and reemergence happens, when we speak our truths and address history in its purest form.

Am I thankful? Yes, I will always be grateful in knowing that every land back effort or rematriation of seeds contributes to our momentum. I am grateful to see the next generation participating in traditional practices and learning how to become knowledge holders. I will continue to honor every attempt at speaking our language or showing up at a ceremony as an act of reclamation.

I give thanks every day that my ancestors knew how crucial it was to keep our knowledge alive, living deep within our blood memories. I am thankful for our culture and for the teachings that show us our connection to those ancestors — the teachings that remind us we will always be connected to their strength, resilience and knowledge. Through it all, our ancestors have shown us how important it is to continue to care for our homelands, to share knowledge and, above all, to create a better space for the future.

I don’t need a federal holiday to tell me to be grateful for our ancestors’ defiance, ability to adapt and endurance to return home and continue to live life with our old ways close to our hearts.

What does Thanksgiving mean to me? Well, I’d like to think of it as an opportunity to have those difficult conversations, to educate, to appreciate the strength of our ancestors. An opportunity to think about how we can change our approach toward gratitude and appreciation, especially when we think about the community we are trying to build for our future generations.

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