*Thanksgiving, Honoring Truthgiving: Native Survivor’s Story of Reflection

By Cari Herthel

For many Americans, the month of November is seen as a time to prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday – a moment to come together and celebrate with loved ones. However, for Native and Indigenous communities, the month of November – Native American Heritage Month – and, more specifically, November 25 – the Day of Mourning – is a time of deep reflection and mourning of the atrocious history of this country. As a Native American woman and survivor of human trafficking, I would like to offer my reflections on the true history of Native American’s Day of Mourning with the hopes that through this reflection of our history, we can acknowledge and use this education as a tool for reconciliation and healing, and through giving a voice to my ancestors, we can instill meaningful change.

Then & Now

Many people may wonder “do Native American and Indigenous communities celebrate Thanksgiving?” and how could we? As Dennis Zotigh puts it, “How do Native Americans make peace with a national holiday that romanticizes the encounter between their ancestors and English settlers in 1621, and erases altogether the deadly conflicts between them that followed?” Individuals should still celebrate Thanksgiving with their loved ones, however, I believe it is imperative that Americans also educate themselves on the history of this country – the brutal violence and colonization that occurred, and continues to occur, against Native and Indigenous communities.

Thanksgiving is believed to be a time when, in 1621, colonizers and Native tribes came together peacefully for a harvest feast of thanksgiving. However, this misunderstanding around the establishment of Thanksgiving fails to acknowledge the fact that human trafficking has been occurring in this country since the founding of the United States. The concept of “settlement” involved enslaving native populations, most often using violent force, and the exploitation and trafficking of Indigenous women and girls is deeply entrenched in the history of our country. From forced removal to relocation and cultural assimilation, exploitation continues to occur to this day. Across the country, schools have been used as a weapon against Indigenous communities. In California beginning in the late 18th century, efforts known as the California missions began to convert Indigenous communities to Christianity and expand European territory. The human trafficking of my ancestors during this period intersects with the violence that is at the heart of the disconnection of our nation’s human trafficking crisis.

Processing Thanksgiving Time

As a survivor of trafficking, I understand the importance of breaking the silence, which has been a significant way for me to turn that poison into medicine. As a Native woman, I believe that we must continue to break the silence on the history of Thanksgiving and the history of violence and exploitation in this country against our people. It is ironic that Thanksgiving is celebrated during Native American Heritage Month – a time that should be spent celebrating and honoring Native and Indigenous communities. However, this time is instead used to celebrate – unconsciously or not – the colonization of our people.

Reflecting on the Day of Mourning contains two aspects for me. First, an acknowledgment of the history of our people in this country. Second, an opportunity to reflect on the untold story of Native Americans and use it to show the resilience of my ancestors. Through my lived experience as a survivor of labor trafficking, I can use my voice to shed light on the history of my ancestors during Thanksgiving time, and hope that this acknowledgment and reflection can help us move forward to create change for Native and Indigenous communities. My healing occurs when there is acknowledgement, reflection, social action and engagement for my people – there exist opportunities to focus on the history of Native and Indigenous people in this country, and to educate Americans so they can help us move forward and create change.

Moving Forward

As a survivor and Native woman, it can be difficult to continue moving forward in my healing journey based on the systemic and continuous exploitation of Native Americans in this country. We cannot move forward to end the systemic racism in the United States until we acknowledge the role genocide and racism has played in the creation of this country. As Resmaa Menakem puts it:

“None of us asked for this trauma. None of us deserves it. Yet none of us can avoid it. It is part of our historical, inter-generational, institutional, personal and national histories…Today we’re at a reckoning. We Americans have an opportunity to recognize the trauma embedded in our bodies; to accept the necessary pain of healing; and to move through and out of our trauma.”

Alongside recognizing the historical trauma, violence, and exploitation my ancestors have endured since the founding of this country, we must also acknowledge and protect the sacred land we are on, encourage the reemergence of Indigenous traditions and ceremonies, and advocate for legislation that will protect Native Americans. Native American Heritage Month is a perfect opportunity to reflect on these action items, allowing us to move forward in creating meaningful change.

To Learn More About the History of Native American and Indigenous Communities:

American Has Always Used Schools as a Weapon Against Native Americans

Bringing Truth of Mission Era Forward

Teaching the Truth of the California Missions

Uncovering Difficult Histories at Santa Cruz Mission

To Learn More About the Intersection between Native Americans, Human Trafficking, and the United States Legal System:

Human Trafficking Among Native Americans: How Jurisdictional and Statutory Complexities Present Barriers to Combating Modern-Day Slavery

Human & Sex Trafficking: Trends and Responses across Indian Country

Wisdom International Legislation

Trauma-Informed Care Resources:

Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies

The Breathe Network: Building Resilience through Embodied Approaches to Healing

Behavioral Health Services for American Indian and Native Alaskans

Self-Care Resources to Help Address Burnout and Increase Wellness in Tribal Child Welfare


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