Should We Rethink Thanksgiving?

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What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Is it a time to come together with family? Is it a special meal with delicious food? Does Thanksgiving make you think of long days stuck in traffic or suffering through tense conversations with family members?

As coronavirus cases continue to spike around the United States and additional Covid-19 safety precautions are put in place, how will your Thanksgiving be different this year?

And, should we rethink how we traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving, given the inaccuracies in the tale of Thanksgiving, and in light of a renewed focus on racial justice this year?

In “How to Do Thanksgiving With Less Waste,” Priya Krishna writes about environmental activists, educators and urban farmers who are rethinking Thanksgiving with a lens of environmental justice and history:

… the holiday is one of the most wasteful times of the year, with 200 million pounds of turkey alone tossed out annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Most dinners this year will be smaller, as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the country. Yet the day’s environmental impact may still be significant — perhaps even more so, since many Americans will be serving Thanksgiving-size feasts to only a few guests.

Reducing waste can be as simple as turning scraps into broth and reusing containers. But Ms. Jackson and other environmental advocates say it’s equally important to think more broadly about our relationship to the holiday, and the vast ripple effects of the waste it generates.

“Traditional Native peoples are raised with this idea that we have a responsibility for our land,” which means using all parts of a plant or animal, and fertilizing the ground with bones and shells so that food will regenerate, said Dr. Enrique Salmón, 62, a professor of American Indian studies at California State University East Bay.

The classic Thanksgiving ingredients, like turkey, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, were originally cultivated by Native Americans in ways that showed respect for the Earth. But the celebration has become commercialized, and unmindful of the nation’s violent treatment of Native Americans, said Nikki Sanchez, an Indigenous scholar and documentary filmmaker who lives on Coast Salish territory in Victoria, British Columbia. Those who celebrate need to be more aware of this, and take the time to appreciate their food.

“Gratitude and abundance are reciprocal things,” said Ms. Sanchez, 33. When we take from the land, she said, we should also give back — through growing, recycling, composting and replanting.

Cooking the same dishes for Thanksgiving each year also leads to mass production of ingredients like turkey and cranberries, which puts undue stress on food systems, Ms. Sanchez said.

She suggested people create a menu inspired by their heritage — smoked fish from Norway, mole from Mexico. “Think of the foods that are actually representative to who you are,” she said, and “actually bringing your own identity into this holiday.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

What is your reaction to the article? Have you ever considered the environmental impact of Thanksgiving? What could you do to make your Thanksgiving more environmentally conscious?

Is Thanksgiving a significant holiday for you and your family? Or is it just another day off from school? What values or traditions do you associate with Thanksgiving? What worries or frustrates you about the holiday?

How do you feel about Thanksgiving this year? Are you adjusting your holiday celebrations in light of the pandemic? If so, what will be different? How do you feel about the changes that you and your family are making this year?

How do your unique Thanksgiving traditions highlight your identity, heritage and beliefs? Do you eat dishes that are specific to your family, ancestors and history? What is one dish that you enjoy preparing or eating? Describe the dish using vivid details.

The article emphasizes that mindfulness around waste is “one way to help communities of color, who are often the most endangered by overflowing landfills and the air pollution and hazardous chemical runoff they create.” Are there other values or actions that you think are important to emphasize during the Thanksgiving holiday? How do you think we can be more accountable and thoughtful to others around Thanksgiving?

The featured article addresses the legacy of violence toward Native Americans that is often ignored when celebrating Thanksgiving. This year, in particular, many people are talking about the devastating impact of the coronavirus on Native American communities. What role do you think acknowledging that history, and its legacy today, should play in celebrating — or choosing not to celebrate — Thanksgiving? Do you think it is important to talk about the problematic and harmful history of colonization in relation to Thanksgiving? If yes, what should that conversation look like? What actions should be taken in light of that history?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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