With Covid-19 vaccines more readily available in the U.S., Thanksgiving in 2021 looks a lot different than it was in 2020. But with the upheavals of the past year-and-a-half, for me, it doesn’t feel quite right to just go back to Thanksgiving extravaganzas as usual. Part of it is Covid-related as we are still in a pandemic, but another aspect is that I’ve gained a whole new perspective on holidays, especially those that are so specifically American. Last year, I wrote about how Americans (and visitors and observers of America) can rethink the way we approach Thanksgiving from an Indigenous perspective. A lot of the conscientiousness I bring this year is from that awakening, but it also involves generally just being more deliberate about ways we celebrate and gather. Here are five ways you can to have a conscious Thanksgiving.
1) Learn about Indigenous Justice Movements
This year is a great opportunity to learn about the true origins of Thanksgiving. It’s also an important moment to start learning about the Indigenous people whose land you’re on, their cultures, heritage, and the work they’re doing to advance Indigenous justice.
This downloadable Thanksgiving placemat created by Real Rent Duwamish for Seattle Settlers offers some real ways to do that, particularly for people in that region. Those not on Duwamish land can take cues from the placemat information and use this Thanksgiving to start conversations and bring awareness and action to our everyday life. Those include offering a land acknowledgement at the conscious Thanksgiving table, doing research on the Indigenous peoples of the region you live on, and finding ways to get involved in Native-led movements.
2) Focus on Deeper, Ongoing Gratitude
I’ve always loved the sentiments around Thanksgiving. It’s less of a commercialized holiday and more focused on gathering with loved ones and expressing gratitude. Certainly the history is problematic, but there’s something valuable in having a holiday that is focused on a positive emotion. But, as Matika Wilbur noted in an All My Relations Podcast, “having a holiday that only gives thanks one time a year is dangerous.” She goes on to note that Indigenous people’s culture and communities “have ways…of offering thanks and giving thanks on a regular basis that shapes the way that we interact with the world.”
This resonates with me and offers perspective on how Thanksgiving could be a good starting place to weave genuine gratitude into everyday life. One great resource on gratitude is Ross Gay’s extremely delightfull book called Book of Delights. He’s not an Indigenous writer, but as a Black writer, he offers complex perspectives on gratitude in his daily missives on both small and large delights. And, with my 4.5-year old, we’re going to work through a gratitude activity for kids rooted in Indigenous perspectives on giving thanks from the book A Kid’s Guide to Native American History by Yvonne Wakin Ddennis and Arlene Hirschfelder.
3) Focus Local on Food and Learning About Indigenous Foodways
The other thing I love about Thanksgiving is that it also involves two of my favorite everyday things: cooking and food. This is a very American holiday, so it feels only proper to have the source of your food specifically focused on the land that is currently called America.
The local food movement has become an important element of sustainability culture and this is a great time to really focus on that and be a starting point to bring this local-eating/local-food tradition to everyday life. This is also an excellent opportunity to rethink your conscious Thanksgiving table in general. It’s true that many of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes have roots in Indigenous foodways, but the way we’ve adopted them as “traditional American food” seems to have erased the true origins of the ingredients.
So this year, for our Thanksgiving table, we’re being more deliberate about the dishes we’re making and learning about them. For example, instead of turkey, I’m making two forms of roast duck from Sean Sherman’s The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen alongside Ojibwe wild rice. Sherman also provides important background on the dishes and their Indigenous significance.
I also plan to use this Thanksgiving dinner as a jumping-off point for ongoing learning about Indigenous foodways especially by watching the film Gather—these podcasts and films are also great resources. You can also find out about local food near you through The Natural Sustainable Agriculture Coalition provides a guide here.
4) Reduce Food Waste
The Thanksgiving dinner table is a leftover haven. But it can almost be too much. While we’ve always used the leftover turkey and made broth from the leftover bones, I always feel like we inevitably throw a whole lot away. And according to the USDA, food waste ends up being 30-40% of our food supply.
This New York Times article offers some great perspective on how we can reduce our waste during the holiday this year. The article offered these tips to minimize food waste and other waste both in the short and long-term:
- Look through your pantry before going to the grocery store. You might already have a lot of the things you need, so no need to double up.
- Buy fresh and local from your farmer’s market producers. This goes for the bird/meat you’re planning on eating which might require a bit of planning ahead of time, but you can easily go the week of Thanksgiving for all your produce-related purchases.
- Don’t use single-use decorations or tableware. This is the time to bring out the fancy plates and crystal, anyway.
- Donate any leftovers to homeless shelters or other social services agencies that want it. Make sure to connect with the organization ahead of time because not all orgs have the capacity or desire to handle leftovers.
- Learn more about the deep values in sustainability rooted in Black and brown communities. The article aptly points out that terms like “sustainability” and “zero waste” have become popularized (and often by White communities), however the values are very much a part of Indigenous cultures and spirituality and is rooted in the necessary resourcefulness in Black communities that were often left out of food systems. After all, the environmental justice movement was created by Black Americans and the Indigenous-led Land Back movement is rooted in environmental sustainability.
5) Celebrate America’s Melting Pot
With Thanksgiving being a very American holiday, we have an opportunity to celebrate the important immigrant contributions to our food traditions. Because the holiday isn’t rooted in any one religion, there’s a sense of inclusivity around it where immigrant families often lean into the family-centric gathering nature of the day and feel free to make it their own. This Washington Post story goes into how American immigrants have made the holiday their own.
For me, as a many generation white European-American, the assimilation of my family of Italian-German-Danish ancestors has somewhat erased my connection to immigrant traditions–something my sister has been diving into as exploring her own connections to whiteness through this “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness” workshop. So as a family, we’ve been working to reconnect ourselves with those immigrant roots.
But also this is an opportunity to celebrate the immigrant communities who make our communities the amazing places that they are by incorporating elements from other cultures or to bring in culinary nuance to your traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Brinda Shah, my fellow conscious travel editor, has tried to integrate the Thanksgiving classics more seamlessly with her family’s food traditions. “These holiday meals growing up were always turkey or whatever else ‘American’ on one side and Indian food on the other side,” she says. “Now, I feel like each year that I cook a Thanksgiving or holiday meal, I try to mix the two to make a cohesive meal.” Her family’s favorite holiday meals now include garam masala rubbed turkey, ghee mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie with spices used in chai–a coalescence of food traditions that are more inclusive and beyond what we think of as traditionally white American.
This seamless integration of different food traditions is also an important way to support third culture kids who might grow up feeling that their two cultures are at odds with one another. “In fact, as time passes and more children of immigrants define their ‘American-ness,'” says Brinda, “they recognize that there is significant momentum and support for marrying immigrant cultures with traditional American ones.”
I hope this inspires you to think about some of the ways you can do things differently this year and in the future. Please share in the comments what traditions you might be shaking up this conscious Thanksgiving!
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