I used to think it was enough, every Thanksgiving, to post Wednesday Addams’ famous Thanksgiving monologue. Like most Indian kids across the country, when I first saw “Addams Family Values,” I delighted in the speech delivered by the iconic little outcast. It was one of the first times I remember feeling seen in pop culture as she rants about the realities of reservations and settler/colonial violence, about selling beaded bracelets by the roadside. Her statement about living in mobile homes resonated so intensely with me that I think my 10-year-old self actually fell in love with Christina Ricci. If I hadn’t been already, I was in that moment.
Looking like the Land of Lakes Indian Maiden, match in hand and eyes wide, she looked into the camera and promised to burn the pilgrim village to the ground, and I cheered. I don’t think the writers knew what they were doing. This wasn’t just another dark remark, pointing to the character’s fascination with all things morbid. This was a statement about Indigenous identity.
Each year ― even nearly three decades later ― my feed is flooded with memes that capture the spirit of this monologue. It’s a nod to this historical moment in cinematic comedy and a collective acknowledgment of what it communicates. I’ve seen T-shirts and posters showcasing it. I’ve even seen beadwork capturing the original princess of goth’s likeness.
As Indigenous people, we have celebrated this speech as a way to laugh through it, to make light of our country’s embracing of a hypocritical holiday. Each year it has brought me some small satisfaction to share this on my own social media feeds, to know that it might reach families that were waiting in line for turkey, clambering to make mountains of food, to come together for one night to sit around a table and announce what it was they were thankful for, without ever questioning why. It was small and silly, just something to brace myself against the waves of posts about cranberry sauces and family recipes.
That victorious moment in which Wednesday holds up her hand, the smile wiped from her pale face, and says, “Wait. We cannot break bread with you,” once served as a pivotal moment of truth ― one I felt compelled to share, to laugh at, to help me get through this holiday. But this wasn’t enough ― it was never enough.
This year, as I scroll through the news, I see the warnings against gathering for Thanksgiving, that coming together in the face of this pandemic puts our loved ones at risk. Families are still hellbent on ignoring this advice. Nothing will stand in the way of this antiquated tradition of gravy and pumpkin pie.
When my non-Native friends talk to me about Thanksgiving, they are quick to remind me they know about the day’s genocidal roots. “But that’s not why we still celebrate,” they tell me, reassuringly adding, “We get it. We just like the time off and being together.”
Some friends go so far as to share the ways they honor Indigenous history around the table at their meals. As they pass the mashed potatoes, as they butter their rolls and drink their wine, they have woke conversations about the real meaning behind Thanksgiving, the brutal history. “We tell our kids the truth.”
They say this like I’m to respond by presenting them a badge of honor complete with a bright gold star and my gratitude. Gosh. Thank you for doing the work. But is it really enough to discuss the destruction of the Wampanoag peoples’ food resources and the ways the first settlers nearly starved to death during a period actually known as “the starving years,” had it not been for the Wampanoag’s generosity?
I wonder what happens when they get to the part of the story when the pilgrims resorted to cannibalism. Do their children cry when it’s revealed that even after rescuing the settlers from starvation, the tribe still suffered violence from the very pilgrims they had just saved? Does the table hold a moment of silence for the lost lands, for the destruction of hunting grounds, of food sovereignty? Is it really enough just to talk about these things?
I imagine my woke white friends, sharing their stories of Indigenous struggle. Do they tell their children about blisters and boils? About entire villages wiped out by a new disease?
People joke about the gross amounts of food brought to the table on Thanksgiving. They laugh about how full they get, about unbuttoning their jeans and napping on the couch next to Grandpa. This feels like a white concept to me ― not just getting unnecessarily full, but making it your goal. Why do this? Is it because we can? If there is a seemingly endless supply of something, is it our nature to consume it? Are we so driven to deplete things?
Even in the current and dangerous state we find ourselves in, masked up to protect ourselves and each other against the virus, people are still fighting over turkey. I have seen empty shelves in stores. I have seen lines wrapped around parking lots as people stand 6 feet apart waiting to get in to Whole Foods. We have been told not to gather and still this need to come together to eat and make statements of gratitude drives us to ignore precautionary measures that could and will save lives.
Someone asked me what I would be doing this Thanksgiving. I laughed and paused in the absurdity of the inquiry. This question would be ridiculous to me on any given year, but it feels especially ridiculous in 2020. As a Coast Salish woman, I hate this holiday. But as an asthmatic person in 2020, I’m terrified of this holiday. A fear lives in my body. It has been passed down generationally.
This is not the first pandemic Indigenous people have faced. Along with the tradition of turkey and gratitude, Thanksgiving brings to mind the other things pilgrims brought to Native people. Things like smallpox. I imagine my woke white friends, sharing their stories of Indigenous struggle. Do they tell their children about blisters and boils? About entire villages wiped out by a new disease?
On the last Thanksgiving spent with my full family, when my great-grandmother was still alive, she sat at the head of the table. I saw the irony of a Coast Salish family gathering to share a meal on this day, but we’re a family just like you, and we gathered simply because we could, because we had an opportunity to share a meal.
My great-grandmother addressed the table, the way I imagine other heads of families do when they say grace. She spoke about the importance of being together in English. She spoke about gratitude. Then she spoke in our traditional language. I don’t speak our tribal language. I don’t know what it was she said, but as she spoke tears rolled down her cheeks, her words heavy with emotion. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
The words came out slow and delicate. She was lost in memory. Perhaps it was the memory of being a child on the Baker river and watching her mother cool a can of condensed milk in the current, taking it out, whisking it with a fork until it became whipped cream. Perhaps it was the memory of a box of raisins gifted to her by a white woman sick with smallpox when she was only 3 years old. Her mother had gone to check on the woman, who was all alone, unable to care for her house or fix a meal. The sick woman gave my great-grandmother raisins. She had never had something so sweet before. Whatever the memory may have been, my great-grandmother was lost in it as she spoke. She looked around the table; she looked at her abundance. And then like any other family, we ate. We got too full.
When I answered that question about my Thanksgiving this year, I said I hated this holiday. If I was to ceremoniously eat anything, it wouldn’t be turkey or potatoes. I’ll most likely eat salmon. I’ll make a food I know my ancestors ate pre-contact. This is something I have gratitude for. As are the trees, the ferns that grow out of them, my mom as she tells me a certain root is good for my respiratory health.
I remember my great-grandmother’s face that Thanksgiving. The look on it existed somewhere between gratitude and grief. Through my complicated feelings around this holiday, I’m thankful for how precise my memory is, how I can still see each line of her face, and hear the sounds of our language. If she were alive today, I’d hate to miss the opportunity to share a meal, but I would. I would miss her rather than put her at risk.
This week, a friend tested positive for COVID-19. He contracted it in his place of work ― not out at a bar, not eating brunch, but in his place of work. What gutted me more than the news of my friend struggling through sickness was his response. He was consumed by the fear that he might have exposed his wife, who, like me, sufferers from asthma. That night, I couldn’t sleep. Instead I burned cedar. I remembered the times they had opened their home to me, had made me laugh, had been good friends.
If you are grateful for something, I think it’s important to ask yourself why. Examine the idea of thankfulness. We can cherish people every day. People we could not imagine our lives without. To honor them, let’s not make statements around a table of food. Let’s make their favorite meal and eat it together through a screen. Because however you make your risk assessments, however you justify your levels of safety, consider the people you are eager to break bread with. Consider them in a hospital bed. Consider not being allowed inside the room as they take their last labored breath.
There is a selfish desire to be close, a hunger to share space with those we love. The history of this holiday is built on selfish desires, the need to fill something. It has been a long time coming, the necessity for checking this holiday. If we cannot do it now, when?
Statements of gratitude are not enough. Teaching your children about the genocide basic to this country’s foundation is not enough. And I’m sorry, my beloved first crush, my Wednesday Addams, your face illuminated in match light and smiling, is not enough.
Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is a Coast Salish author from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian tribes. Her work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Lit Hub, and Indian Country Today. Her book “Red Paint: An Ancestral Autobiography” is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press.
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