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Embracing My Heritage: What Thanksgiving means to me as a Cherokee woman

From an early age, I loved to cook. So I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother. She was the matriarch of our family and, to my delight, each Thanksgiving, the kitchen brimmed with her knowledge and energy. My grandmother was a Cherokee woman. Our people originated from North Carolina before they were forced to march southwest to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

On our table, there was no mac and cheese or turkey like the Thanksgiving “feast” at our Colorado elementary school. It was always a smaller bird and some sort of game meat. We ate corn pudding and a hearty soup with beans and butternut squash that I cannot replicate, though I’ve tried a thousand times. And there were always lots of greens: kale, spinach and collards. My grandmother’s garden provided her with bountiful harvests because she nurtured the land. It was an important Thanksgiving Day lesson about Indigenous culture for a girl who grew up in a majority-white town and knew little about her heritage.

In elementary school, we were taught the inaccurate tale of a Pilgrims’ feast and made headdresses to imitate their Indigenous guests. At my grandparents’ table, it was never about Pilgrims and Indians. It was about family and gratefulness. This tradition continued as my parents began to host our family gatherings.

When I was in high school, tribes began to advocate for the “Day of Mourning.” On Thanksgiving, people would focus on Indigenous history and their ongoing struggle for equity, instead of pretending that people had simply come together for a nice meal. I learned more about Cherokee culture and Indigenous history. I began to push back against the false narratives I had learned at school. I had to seek out and learn my history and come to terms with it. Reconciliation continues to come from education, both as a personal pursuit and sharing it forward.

Now, I and the other grandchildren who gathered around that Thanksgiving table for so many years are cooking the holiday dinner and hosting the gathering of chosen family. We try to keep alive the old traditions that my grandmother taught us. We try to focus on the land, stick to local growers and keep the table mostly full of greens and vegetables. We continue the tradition of sharing what we’re grateful for, but we tend to do that whenever we come together as a family, not only on this holiday.

Today, more people use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to focus on the experience of Indigenous people and colonization. November is even “Native American Heritage Month.” If there’s meaning in this growing recognition, it’s about building a sense of community; understanding not only what truly happened that first Thanksgiving, but what has happened and continues to happen to Indigenous people in the U.S., and how it’s shaped the country we live in today.

It’s a lesson we should all take to heart.

Carmeleta Clark is the deputy director of security at the SPLC.

Illustration at top by SPLC