Terror & Togetherness: The Tensions of Thanksgiving

My mother called me a few weeks ago and asked what I was doing for the holidays. I shared that I would be flying back to New York to spend time with her and the rest of our family for Christmas and would head back to Chicago right before New Year’s Eve. 

“But what about Thanksgiving? What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”

“Thanksgiving?”, I repeated with question in my voice. 

I inhaled and fought the urge to vomit a statement full of terms like "genocide," "colonizers," and "revisionist history" at my mom. I thought of what Native peoples have had to endure historically and in modernity when their lands were stolen and bodies brutalized. 

Images of Standing Rock and its sacred rolling hills marred by the presence of heavy machinery, massive floodlights, and private security forces rushed forward in my mind. Last year I spent the fourth Thursday in November co-facilitating a trip where others could "offer up their bodies, time, and sacred space to share in community with the indigenous community and allies already present in prayerful and ceremonial protection" at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota. The rich spirit of presence and protection in the camp was disturbed by threats from the hillside occupiers and their drones hovering overhead.

That memory gave way to one of friends and strangers laughing in my living room the year prior, our bellies full and hearts light with the joy that togetherness can inspire. It felt incredible to cultivate and share space with people from all over the country as we broke bread, told stories, and played games in an adopted city that was still so new to us.

I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room as she beamed with pride and raved over the ham she entrusted me to make.

I’ll never forget the pride that swelled in me because my family matriarch enlisted 20-something year old me to not only contribute something to our Thanksgiving meal, she chose a dish central to a black family celebration. 

My mind wandered to a Thanksgiving day long ago when I stood beside my father’s grandmother and she invited me to share in a secret. Mama and I stood at her kitchen sink and she guided my small, childlike hands in seasoning the turkey with a mix of herbs and spices known only by her until the moment of this exchange. 

My knowledge and witness of the dehumanization of Native American people juxtaposed my memories of holiday dinners where everyone was welcome. I heard the warnings over loudspeakers as we prayed and declared that #WaterIsLife alongside raucous laughter as my mom taunted whoever was brave enough to play Spades with her that year. 

Bloodshed. Mac and Cheese. #NoDAPL. Long-winded prayers. Curse. Blessing. In a matter of seconds all these things vied for space in my mind. 

I exhaled and cleared my throat, deciding to simply tell my mother that I didn’t know what I was going to do about Thanksgiving. 

That’s the truth.

I don’t know what to do with this day that’s history is grounded in the erasure and subjugation of people but that also reminds me of the beauty present in community. 

Perhaps all I can do is acknowledge the terror and the spirit of togetherness this day holds and give thanks for the tension and unrest these things stir up in my soul. 

Photo by Lucas Zhao via Oceti Sakowin Camp

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