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Ohlone mural.

Ohlone mural.

How to Give Thanks and Acknowledge History

Santa Clara must grapple with its own involvement in the problematic history surrounding Thanksgiving and Native American culture.

Though the broad messages of Thanksgiving are ones we can all theoretically get behind—offering gratitude and sharing one’s bounty—Joanna Thompson, director of Santa Clara's Office of Multicultural Learning, says it's important to acknowledge that this messaging does not tell the whole story.

The history of the holiday is complicated, she says, particularly for many Native Americans who see it as a celebration of the start of the assimilation and methodical eradication of their culture by white settlers. It is no coincidence that Native American Heritage Day falls on the day after Thanksgiving, and Native American Heritage Month runs the entire month of November.

Santa Clara University must also grapple with its own involvement in this problematic history. The campus sits on the tribal land of the Ohlone and Muwekma Ohlone peoples, a fact that’s now acknowledged at the start of University events.

This year, Thompson led students in marking Native American Heritage Month by discussing possible updates to SCU’s Land Acknowledgement and having “Difficult Dialogues” about the Thanksgiving holiday.

Portions of this Q&A have appeared in a previous Illuminate.

This month, the Office of Multicultural Learning hosted a “Difficult Dialogues” which reflected on SCU’s Land Acknowledgement. What did the conversation focus on?

Two of our student assistants, in collaboration with the student-led Native American Coalition for Change club, discussed SCU’s Land Acknowledgement with students, faculty, and staff, sharing the importance of recognizing that this is the land of the Ohlone people. The dialogue also reviewed land acknowledgements from other colleges and universities across the nation, discussing how various Native tribes throughout the United States have been affected by settler colonialism.

Some attendees suggested modifying the language of SCU’s Land Acknowledgement to also reflect the violent history of the Ohlone people. We also addressed the fact that SCU is not unique in facing these challenges—other higher education institutions are also navigating how to respectfully acknowledge indigenous peoples.

The dialogue ended with students asking, “What do we do from here?”

What did they propose?

Yes, it is great Santa Clara University has adopted a Land Acknowledgement, but what else is being done to honor and celebrate the Ohlone people? And how else can we at SCU work towards addressing the challenges indigenous people face not just in the Bay Area, but all over the world? Many believed an answer to these questions is to engage in acts of decolonization not just at SCU, but within the greater Santa Clara/San Jose community. For example, calling out instances of systemic and institutional racism to disrupt cycles of historic oppression and injustices.

Why is it important to have uncomfortable conversations, particularly during the Thanksgiving season, as it relates to America’s history of assimilating its Native people?

Consciously and unconsciously, we continue to erase history. So much of this land’s Native history has already been erased and so much of it has been lost because we as an American society do not want to admit what happened to indigenous peoples. No matter how you put it, land was taken from people who were here first, and we assimilated Natives into a culture they never asked for.

If we, in contemporary times, can acknowledge this sad yet true history, it is a good first step in educating folks about the true history of Thanksgiving.

How can we, as individuals and as a society, reckon with the uncomfortable reality that Thanksgiving can be a painful day of remembrance for many indigenous people?

This is a tough conversation I always have with students around this time of the year. Many of our students grapple with how to support indigenous people while also wanting to celebrate the notion of giving thanks, especially as they prepare to leave campus and head home for the holiday break.

Something I discuss with students is the importance of acknowledging the complicated history of Thanksgiving and how, again, that is a good first step in making a tangible difference. If you want to share in the sense of feast and the giving of thanks, that is great. However, understanding the history behind the day is key. When students head home for the Thanksgiving break, I suggest they have educational moments with their families and friends so that narratives of the Indigenous lived experience are not lost amid the commercialism of the holiday.

The dinner table at Thanksgiving can sometimes be a battleground. How do you suggest we acknowledge issues of importance and divisive current events while keeping peace with relatives?

If anything, it is probably hardest to have these tough conversations with family members. I always tell folks that it really is up to your own personal discretion whether or not you choose to educate, raise awareness, and be an ally. Sometimes conversations like these may do more harm than good for one’s personal well-being. At the end of the day, it is important to conserve your personal energy as an ally.

I also tell people to watch body language. If a family member is turned off by what you are saying and literally turning away from you, that is OK. Do not feel like you have to change everyone’s views because, in reality, you will not over the course of one conversation. But if you do feel like you are in a safe space and there are people in your family who are willing to hear you out, I say seize the opportunity and try to open their minds to other perspectives. Even opening one person’s mind is a great accomplishment!

It is also important to keep in mind these kinds of conversations do not have to happen only around the table at Thanksgiving. There is no reason not to have these conversations continuously, especially since challenges affecting indigenous communities occur 24/7, 365 days a year.

Do you see any generational differences when it comes to eagerness to participate in these difficult dialogues? 

Oh, heck yeah! I am 31 years old, and if you look at even the decade difference between me and my students, so much has changed. When I was growing up, the world looked different—politically, socially, culturally. Honestly, some social problems at that time did not seem as extreme.

Take, for example, the topic of mass school shootings. When Columbine happened, that was mind-blowing. Now, it is an everyday occurrence and unfortunately, has become normalized.

I think because our current students have grown up in such a different world compared to previous generations, and have immediate access to information through technology, the need to be involved in cultural conversation, to be activists, to start social movements, is deeply embedded in who they are. To me, this is really exciting for the future and truly helps move difficult dialogues forward in a productive way.

Community, Culture, Diversity, Education, Ethics, Student Life
Illuminate, ethics, activism

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