Infusing American Indian representation into my Indian-American Thanksgiving

I always look forward to Thanksgiving. It’s one of the few times in the entire year that my massive Indian family gets together to share space, food, and laughter.  At one point in my immigrant family history, celebrating Thanksgiving felt foreign and novel but it has now become a normative part of our family traditions. As my family continues to assimilate deeper into the U.S. American culture, we have embraced more of an “American” Thanksgiving. We have gone from having mostly Indian food on the dinner table to mastering the traditional Thanksgiving dishes (hello sweet potato casserole!), we gather around the table to pray over the food, state what we are thankful for, and feast together while watching football.

Because this holiday is all about giving thanks, we often take turns verbalizing what we are grateful for. Many of the older members of my family reflect on the gratitude they have for the opportunities and privileges that their U.S. citizenship has provided them. These aunties and uncles are especially thankful for the economic and educational opportunities they have enjoyed as a result of their U.S. citizenship, opportunities which were almost non-existent in our homeland. As Asian Indian immigrants, my family is part of a privileged immigrant group. Indian Americans have not experienced widespread oppression or systemic discrimination like many other racial groups in this country such as the Native American people (also known as American Indians). In my years of experience talking about unearned privilege, I have come to realize that one of the downfalls of having unearned privileges is that it can make you oblivious and ignorant to the experiences of those who are not afforded the same privileges.

American Indians and Indian-Americans have many similarities: we both have dark skin, speak a foreign language, and our world views are vastly different from those of White American culture. We even share the word “Indian” in our group label. However, Indian-Americans have the privilege of not sharing the long standing history of oppression that continues to negatively impact the Native American community. Up until this point in our history, the Indian-American ethnic group has been blessed to not have experienced systemic racism or discrimination in the ways that the American Indian racial group have been subject to. This oppressive history has been largely silenced in formal education because of the grand narrative (one sided history) that is taught in our schools. Because Native Americans are part of the story of Thanksgiving, I think it is important to reflect on the history and experiences that Native Americans have had in this country.  

Unbeknownst to the majority, this country’s history begins with Native Americans, not with Christopher Columbus. Native American people discovered America over 15,000 years ago. Native Americans were in power and control of this land until Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1492 when European colonization began. During this colonization period, European settlers were able to take over control and power from the Native people. These European settlers forever disrupted Native American communities by stripping them of their unique culture and language, enslaving them, forcibly removing them from their lands, and murdering them. History books would have you believe that Native Americans were a people of the past, but they are very much part of contemporary United States. Despite the racial genocide of this community, there are still roughly 5.2 million Native Americans and over 500 federally recognized tribes in this country. Native Americans were the original Americans and it was them who set the foundations of big cities like Chicago (where my family immigrated to) to develop into the bustling city it is today. Speaking of Chicago, the name of my home town derives from a Native American word, Chicagoua, a wild garlic plant that grew near Lake Michigan. You can read more about the Native American influence on Chicago here. If you want to know the indigenous history of the land you live on, you can put in your zipcode here

Native American people, culture, and history are an important part of the history of the United States.  When we celebrate Thanksgiving with our family and friends this year, we should remember this community and pay homage to them for laying the foundations of our country and for their many contributions to society. One way to show respect to Native American people and culture is to speak about them in a socially responsible way- avoiding stereotypes and the single story of Thanksgiving that does not acknowledge the hardships and marginalization that was brought on to them by European settlers. This racial justice guide to Thanksgiving for families and educators put together by the Center for Racial Justice in Education can aid you in talking about this holiday from a culturally responsive perspective. If you want your expand your child's worldview, this reading list is a fantastic resource of recently published children's books that have been written and illustrated by Indigenous writers. 

I have so much to be thankful for: my health, my loving family, my amazing friends, my rewarding career, and so much more. This Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful for all of the people in our society who are working tirelessly for a multiracial democracy that ensures that the “WE” in “we the people” means ALL of us, no matter what hue your skin color is or where your family of origin is from.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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