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Thanksgiving, UnThanksgiving, Thanksgrieving: Native American Perspectives

By Lawrence Ellis
I invite you to step with me into the Present Moment, that magical meeting place between the effects from the Past, the enormity of all that is Now, and the ripe possibilities of Futures that might unfold. I invite you to work with me and others to celebrate and heal the Past, to live more deeply in the Present, and consciously to co-create a future for the Earth and all beings.
Join me on a journey -- a mythical-and-actual co-mingling of times Past, Present, and Future; of deeply honoring all of our interrelations and interrelatedness.
The portal for this journey? Thanksgiving: An opportunity to acknowledge the horrendous sufferings, past and present; to touch into occasions for gratitude and inspiration, past and present; and to stand for a possible future of healing and transformation -- for ourselves and for Mother Earth -- starting now, in this present moment.
Our starting point? A deeper look at Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is one of the most cherished holidays in the U.S. Most people I encounter look forward to taking an extended weekend off to celebrate with friends and family. Whether close friends and colleagues, or passers-by whom I meet once and may never see again, many invoke the refrain, “Have a Happy Thanksgiving!”
My response to these well-intended wishes varies, depending on the person. However, even with passers-by, I’m usually able to respond with a question that generally evokes a pause and, perhaps, even an awareness shift: “Oh, thank you. Though I’m part Native American. Do you know how we view this holiday?”
When I offer this evocative and unexpected response, it sometimes serves as a passageway into deeper awareness, sharing, and authenticity -- and sometimes not.
Why do I choose to respond this way?
There are many and varied histories of Thanksgiving, recounted from different vantage points. Whatever actual events transpired several centuries ago, and since then, millions of people now seem to believe a story about a magnanimous group of Native people, largely from the Wampanoag Nation, helping Pilgrims survive in a land completely new to them – culminating in the two groups celebrating a harvest feast peacefully and joyfully.
What’s not included in the more sanitized or abbreviated version of the Thanksgiving story is that, soon after the celebration of gratitude, the genocidal massacres and culture-eradications of these and other Native Americans started, and continued on for centuries, and continue to this day.
The main invitation I pose to non-Native Americans who seek to cultivate a consciousness of our deep interconnectedness, and of the dignity of all beings, is this: “If Thanksgiving is rooted in a tradition of giving gratitude, inspired by the generosity of Native people centuries ago, and if many Native Americans have deeply mixed feelings about this holiday – with many viewing it as a Day of Mourning – what is the consciousness that I might bring to this day?”
Native Americans are not a homogenous group. There is tremendous diversity of culture, beliefs, and languages across our different nations. As might be expected, opinions and values may vary greatly on many topics, including Thanksgiving – even within nations, communities and families.
Some Native Americans ignore the Thanksgiving holiday. Some observe it as a Day of Mourning. Others celebrate the day just as many other Americans do.
Many, if not most, whom I know acknowledge that among our peoples in general, opportunities to give thanks are cherished. In particular, many Native traditions revere any opportunity to express gratitude to The Creator, so some component of this carries into the Thanksgiving Day.
Nonetheless, I believe that all in my circles are aware of the Thanksgiving origin-myths and the genocidal realities of what ultimately unfolded between the new Pilgrim immigrants and Native peoples, and we bring some component of critique, protest, mourning, grieving, or transformational awareness into the holiday.
This is why I call this holiday “Thanksgrieving,” which, for me, offers an opportunity to acknowledge and hold a spectrum of perspectives, from gratitude and inspiration, to mourning and grief.
Another popular term is “Un-Thanksgiving.” In the San Francisco Bay Area, since 1974, thousands of people who observe Un-Thanksgiving go to Alcatraz Island, starting between 4:15 and 6:00 a.m., for sacred Sunrise Ceremonies that include elders, dancers, and wise ones from many Native nations. The ceremonies are usually followed by politicized talks from several prominent leaders and others on the leading edge of liberation efforts around the world. The event is open to the general public and lasts a few hours.
For years, there was a tradition afterwards of many of us -- mainly Native people -- going to the Intertribal Friendship House for socializing, performances, and conversation that blended gratitude, mourning, and strategies for liberation -- over a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
My invitation to those of you who are non-Native, yet bring an intention for a “Shift” in consciousness into your daily life, is this: That you bring some component of something like and UnThanksgiving or Thanksgrieving Native American perspective into your Thanksgiving holiday.
What might this look like? You might offer a brief acknowledgement during a blessing, adopt a term like “Thanksgrieving” or “UnThanksgiving,” start a conversation on the topic with family members and friends, read an article about Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective and consider sharing it with those who are celebrating the holiday with you, play an educational DVD or audiotape, attend an event like the Sunrise Ceremonies on Alcatraz in California -- or the Day of Mourning in New England, or offer some form of tangible support to and solidarity with the liberation struggles of Native Americans.
Here are some resources for looking deeply into the nature of the holiday and transforming it for greater meaning and depth:

  • Thanksgrieving/Un-Thanksgiving activities by Native Americans in different areas:

Above all, please be mindful of Native American perspectives about the Thanksgiving, Thanksgrieving, or Un-Thanksgiving holiday, and allow this mindfulness to transform your holiday celebrations.
Of course, our journey does not end with Thanksgiving. The invitation is to bring a similarly transformative consciousness – and corresponding actions – to all aspects of our lives, so that our deep interconnectedness across Past, Present and Future; between human beings; and with all life on this precious Mother Earth may make possible A Future worth living – for all.
Lawrence Ellis (Tsalagi/Cherokee; African [a mix of several Southern and Western African peoples, with noted spiritual affinities with the Dagara & Yoruba peoples]; and African American) is a complexity-science organizational consultant and a spiritual activist, with a strong focus on sustainability. He was the Executive Producer and Host of The Shift Network’s “Indigenous Wisdom and Modern Science” Summit, part of the 2012 Spring of Sustainability. He is also a featured expert in the forthcoming feature-length documentary, “Continuum”,  about the interconnectedness of all life on Earth. You can learn more about Lawrence at: and

The Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive The Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in:
2013 Catalyst - Issue 21

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