The email in my inbox held the subject line: “Decolonizing Thanksgiving?!?” The message in the body of the email was one simple question – “What would this look like???”

I understand this question – multiple punctuation included. I have grappled with my own learning and life changes since my eye- and heart-opening experiences with the development, implementation and aftermath of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission investigated the experiences of Native people with the Maine child welfare system. The commission’s work lives as many individuals and organizations seek to learn and create change. Maine-Wabanaki REACH is just one of those organizations committed to implementing the recommendations of the Truth Commission.

While its focus was narrowly on child welfare, we could not escape examining the broader context of settler colonialism and subsequent state and federal policies to take possession of this territory and replace the territory’s original people with European settlers and their descendants. The strategies included intentional and incidental death by disease; bounties on the lives of Native people; enslavement; taking their children; taking their land; banning the speaking of their languages; outlawing the practice of their spiritual traditions; establishing reservations and boarding schools with the oversight of military or churches to “civilize” and control; forced sterilization, and more.

Of course, there’s more – the strategies of settler colonialism have not stopped across the history of this nation, forming our systems, institutions and culture – with devastating consequences for Wabanaki people and Indigenous people nationwide.

Everything surrounding the commission’s creation and significance led us to the much bigger questions about who we are as a society and, more importantly, who we want to be. In today’s email, this question is laser focused on what we call “Thanksgiving” – with a capital T – with all its mythology and meaning.

Decolonization involves learning and taking action grounded in values of restorative justice that include learning what happened across history, acknowledging how this affected Indigenous people and recognizing how we benefited from this harm. It requires us to learn from sources that question the historical narrative and enable us to see how colonization and white supremacy are alive and well in our structures and systems today.


It is not enough to acknowledge past harms. We must cease the continuation of injury and ask ourselves, “How can I lend my voice in support of Wabanaki people to repair the damage that has been done?” The Penobscot River case; mascot issues; the Freeport Indian; addressing the flaws in the 1980 land claims settlement, and appropriation of Indigenous ceremonies and traditions are among some of the issues that are alive and in need of attention from people like you and me.

Joanne Barker, an enrolled member of the Delaware Tribe, takes this on in a 2015 Truthout commentary headlined “No thanks: How Thanksgiving narratives erase the genocide of Native peoples.” She closes her column by saying, “But I honestly do not care if people have a turkey dinner with their family and/or friends and watch TV on Thanksgiving. I do care if people pretend that such a day celebrates or honors Native history and culture. I challenge everyone to find out who the Indigenous people are of the land that they celebrate Thanksgiving on, whether it be at their own residence or someone else’s. I challenge them to educate themselves about the history and current struggles of that people – and to do something productive to honor them and their ancestors.”

We can decolonize by creating actual restorative change and make decolonization more than a metaphorical exercise. It is likely to feel uncomfortable as we learn to see things differently, learn to live differently. The very planet is telling us that we needs to make a change – that is clear.

To chart a new path forward really does involve giving thanks – living with gratitude and generosity, caring for one another and for this earth that gives us life.

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