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The trauma of Thanksgiving for Native communities during a pandemic

Novelist Tommy Orange on whether racial justice protests and Covid-19 disparities bring a new perspective to the holiday.

Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin P. Parrish distributes food, water, and other supplies to Navajo families on May 27, 2020 in Huerfano on the Navajo Nation Reservation, New Mexico.
Sharon Chischilly/Getty Images

The myth of Thanksgiving, a tale of a peacemaking repast between white colonizers and Native Americans, has long been debunked for its historical inaccuracies. But to reckon with the holiday is to understand how it helped set off a painful history of trauma — massacres, abuse, and negligence — that Native Americans still carry 400 years later.

In his 2018 novel There There, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Tommy Orange tells the story of the challenges Native Americans, especially those who live in cities, continue to face. He connects the characters’ journeys of cultural and self-discovery through the lens of generational trauma; the book’s prologue captures the gruesome history of Thanksgiving and Indigenous erasure, from the forced removal of Native American communities from their ancestral lands to current instances of cultural appropriation.

Today, much of the truth of Native American history is still left out of the country’s education system. Meanwhile, Indigenous affairs are minimally covered in the media. This is despite a year that has asked for reflection and action in terms of reexamining the country’s racist past — protests for racial justice swept the country this summer, and the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Indigenous communities and other communities of color. That many American families are still planning to gather this Thanksgiving, despite the risks to the most vulnerable in our communities, is a flashback for many to white settlers spreading deadly diseases that diminished Native populations.

“If Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude and a communal sense of being together, if we can think that way as a country, Covid-19 is one of the lessons where we can learn to think of other people and not ourselves first,” Orange told Vox. “That would be my biggest hope. But I don’t know how much of that is happening.”

I talked to Orange about self-reflection during a time of racial reckoning, why Thanksgiving is still a widely celebrated holiday, and the upcoming sequel to his novel. Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Ramirez

In your book There There, the prologue speaks to the true history of Thanksgiving. How should that excerpt, plus the overall message of your book — the generational trauma Native Americans face in their daily lives — translate to people’s understanding of Thanksgiving in relation to Native Americans today?

Tommy Orange

My son’s 9, and we’ve seen him go through public school, and we could see the warning signs and the way they were going to teach Thanksgiving and what it means historically. It’s indoctrination. Creepy is the way I feel about the way the lie is taught as if it’s the truth. We’re still so far from acknowledging something that seems basic to so many of us. So we just pulled him out of school the first year for the whole week, because we didn’t want him to have to interface with that.

For my son, the next three years, we brought up a Native guy from Oakland who powwow dances, he sings and he drums, and his family dances. He had the kids ask questions about Native culture. He was able to, in a really compassionate way, address a lot of these misunderstandings and the way the general population thinks of Native people — a really monolithic version of what being native is.

There There by Tommy Orange Knopf

In the book, I was just trying to bring something up that has to do with the way we look at history. Americans didn’t care about Thanksgiving until Abraham Lincoln kind of breathed life back into it in order to mend the nation during the Civil War, to give us something to celebrate together. It could be a really cool opportunity for us to do the same thing now, around another civil discord, Civil War-feeling moment in the country with how divided we are — for us to leave Thanksgiving in the same spirits together and decide it’s a stupid American holiday that is really hurtful to a lot of people and was never founded in anything patriotic or true.

Rachel Ramirez

How do you usually spend the holiday week?

Tommy Orange

Well, I grew up celebrating it. My dad didn’t have any problems with it. My dad wasn’t an activist or overtly political in that way. He’s thoroughly a Democrat and very distrustful of the government, but it’s a really easy holiday to celebrate, because you get to eat great food and hang out with your family. Nobody likes to hate on Thanksgiving, because everyone kind of loves it for those good reasons.

But I stopped celebrating it in the past 10 years, and it’s a struggle with in-laws who don’t understand discontinuing wanting to celebrate it. So it’s always kind of an awkward time, but I think it’s really easy this year because of the pandemic. In the past, we’ve made a point to not do anything in particular, just enjoy the day off — including not supporting the Thanksgiving industry, which is buying all the Thanksgiving food, which is one of the many things that continues to support it as a holiday. We’ve gone to the movies different years. We’ve, like I said, just enjoyed the day together.

Rachel Ramirez

With the protests this summer, and the racial reckoning America is slowly having, how do you think the current climate will inform the holiday this year?

Tommy Orange

Right now, the way it feels to me is it’s fallen beyond surreal into absurd. People are holding on so tightly to their traditions under the guise of patriotism, even willing to die from it. I would hope that a lot is going to change because of what’s come out in 2020. I would hope that ... [amid] the sort of economic collapse like the Great Depression, that social change will happen after these devastating historical moments. I’m still holding my breath about a lot, waiting to see what will happen. I’m pretty fatigued.

I can’t say that I’m hopeful that this will mean people will rethink Thanksgiving and Native history. I don’t feel like I’m at a place where I’m allowing myself to hope like that. But I do feel like with all the awareness that’s come up in 2020, for some people, it’s an easy “cancel Thanksgiving” answer. Though I don’t think there is enough progress to be noted, and I’m not trying to be completely cynical. It’s just when we’re divided as we are as a country, and when you still have the people in power that are sort of under the guise of this tradition and patriotism and noble country, it’s hard to feel anything but cynicism.

Rachel Ramirez

How should people take this time to reflect and reexamine the brutal history surrounding Thanksgiving?

Tommy Orange

I’m going to sound cynical again, but anybody who’s taking the time to reflect probably already did enough of reflection this year — if not many, many years before — and is not actively celebrating it in a problematic way that you would need reflection to change. And anybody who does not get into their reflective state, because of what this all means, they don’t give a shit. They’re flying across the country during a pandemic to be patriotic. They’re going to gorge themselves on turkey and gravy.

This is a side of the country I can’t really understand. So I trust that people who are already reflective aren’t doing it in a disrespectful or stupid way, and the people that do will just continue to do that. I don’t see a lot of movement from the other side for this to be an opportunity for them to change their thinking. It feels really hard to reach across and make that kind of gesture during this time.

Rachel Ramirez

Like you said, many American families will be gathering for the holiday, despite health officials’ warnings not to. Meanwhile, Covid-19 is still a major issue disproportionately impacting Indian Country. Can you speak on how historical and current injustices have left Native communities vulnerable in the pandemic and how people can bring light to this?

Tommy Orange

The invisibility of Native issues seems to be a constant. The way that people are thinking about taking the risks — considering the numbers of who it’s affecting more and considering overloading hospitals and affecting people who need medical care and older, vulnerable people — the opportunity to think about vulnerable people in a communal way, it’s really anti-American because we’re so individualistic. Me, me, me and now, now, now. I mean, if Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude and a communal sense of being together, if we can think that way as a country, Covid-19 is one of the lessons where we can learn to think of other people and not ourselves first. That would be my biggest hope. But I don’t know how much of that is happening.

It would be great if this just didn’t become a superspreader event. It’s not just them that’s going to be affected, it’s overloaded hospitals, and it’s going to affect other people.

Rachel Ramirez

Despite the pandemic, Native people turned out this election and were key in swing states like Arizona. How do you see the tribal nations’ relationship with the upcoming Biden administration?

Tommy Orange

Well, it’s good to hear during Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s speech even just the naming of Native Americans. Sometimes we get ignored, so it was good to hear us acknowledged. And I would hope that with Biden’s language around making the Cabinet and the administration look the way the country does — we are a big part of the country’s story, its narrative, its origins, and its present. We’re a smaller number than a lot of other minorities, but we’re an important part of the country. I would hope that moving forward, we could be included more than we had been.

Rachel Ramirez

What are you working on right now? What’s been keeping you busy?

Tommy Orange

I’m working on a sequel to There There. It’s supposed to come out in 2022, hopefully earlier in 2022 than later. So I’ve been deeply involved in getting that into as good shape as I can. The book goes into more history and also the aftermath of the powwow. It’s called Wandering Stars.

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