A Call to Re-imagine Thanksgiving

Dear Friends,

We feel called to write to you with a deep challenge. We ask you to reflect on and re-imagine a holiday that is deeply meaningful to many people of faith.

Many of us treasure Thanksgiving as an opportunity to come together with loved ones, to practice gratitude for the blessings in our lives, and to give thanks to the Source of those blessings. Many also value it as a deeply meaningful spiritual holiday that is not identified with a particular faith although it shares themes and family customs with a number of different significant religious holidays. It is often celebrated as a time when people from different faiths, cultures and races can come together as one. Many also value it as a time when families can attempt to bridge political and other values that often divide us from each other.

In this year, however, as many of us are looking more deeply than before at systemic racism and 400 years of colonization of Native homelands, we are learning that there is much to this holiday that was hidden from us until now. We are also thinking about how to incorporate new understandings into our ways of marking this holiday. We invite you to join with us in this reflection and to share your re-imaginings with others in our community.

We are learning that our traditional understanding of the Thanksgiving story is fundamentally flawed and damaging to the Native peoples whose homelands we now inhabit. It reinforces the idea that this nation is primarily for whites as opposed to Indigenous people and People of Color and for Christians as opposed to other faiths. It hides the history of Native land theft and genocide. It ignores important historical facts, including the reality that one of the first proclamations of “a day set apart for public thanksgiving” by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was in response to the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children in Mystic CT. This narrative also reinforces the invisibility of Native peoples living today in our region and undermines the work they are doing to preserve their cultures and advance their rights and respect.
For all these reasons for the past fifty years, many Native Americans have marked Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning.

We do not have to abandon Thanksgiving as a holiday or the things we value about it. If, however, we are going to be truthful and move towards right relationship with the Native peoples living among us, we need to educate ourselves and our children, re-imagine the holiday, and reshape our narrative surrounding it.

  • Let us acknowledge that even if the meal shared between Pilgrims and Wampanoag in 1621 brought their peoples together at a time when the Wampanoag showed great kindness towards the English colonists, this was a kindness that was ultimately repaid with treachery, broken promises, and genocide.
  • Let us recognize that our first Thanksgivings in New England were declared by Puritan governors who were at least in part thanking God for their victories over Native peoples in our region.
  • Let us remember that the holiday was born in a religious community that believed it had a divine right to invade, conquer, subdue, convert, enslave, and (if necessary) exterminate the Indigenous peoples who had been living in this region for roughly 10,000 years before Europeans arrived here.
  • If we celebrate this holiday today let us do so with a sense of humility and need for forgiveness for what those who conquered these lands did and continue to do to the original inhabitants of this land.
  • And, finally, let us commit ourselves to practice truth, right relationship, healing, and justice with these same Native peoples going forward.

In peace,
Katie Tolles & Peter Blood, Interfaith Opportunities Network
Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener & Rev. Kate Stevens, Interfaith Council of Franklin County
Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, Beit Ahavah Synagogue
Rabbi David Seidenberg, Prayground Minyan
Shaykh Mirza Yawar Baig, Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts
Rev. Kelly Gallagher, Justice & Witness Ministries, Southern New England United Church of Christ