For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time spent in celebration of the wacky pleasures of the heteronormative nuclear family and gorging on industrial poultry and its associated trimmings. For others, it’s a more fraught holiday. Perhaps you really hate the scramble to get to the overcrowded bus/train/airplane, not to mention the expense. Perhaps you don’t get along with your family. Or perhaps you don’t have one.
And perhaps you feel, well, guilty about celebrating a holiday whose origin story is at best murky and at worst a racist myth that covers up the fact that most of the time, colonials and Native Americans weren’t sitting down to friendly dinners to give thanks for each other. Instead, the former were bent on conquering and exterminating the latter.
If you should happen to fall into that last, uncomfortable camp, your options are few. Putting up a defiant social media status is not a particularly satisfying gesture at the best of times; at the worst, it smacks of empty posturing. Friends and relatives will rarely tolerate a conversation on the subject. There isn’t a way, in America, to comfortably bring up the subject of its foundation in a cultural genocide. It’s still, somehow, in bad taste to even acknowledge it. People will flat out tell you that they’d like to eat their cranberry sauce in peace.
I’d like to offer a suggestion for a small act of rebellion: go out and purchase, then read, a book by or about a Native American this Thanksgiving. It’s one way to insist that, along with the gluttonous meal, there be some acknowledgement of what the country is built on.
(It goes without saying that in an ideal world, you would be reading books by Native Americans all year round. It should be the case that people read, without thinking about it, all kinds of books by all kinds of writers on all kinds of subjects. That said, it usually isn’t that way. Many people fall into ruts; if that’s you, I’m saying this is a perfectly good excuse to snap out of it.)
Let’s say you want to read a novel. The work of Louise Erdrich is easy to sink into, particularly her recent National-Book-award-winning The Round House, which I once finished in a single night. Erdrich’s books often begin with a crime or tragedy of some kind, and then unfurl from it the full measure of a community. In The Round House, it’s a rape that sets off the plot; in her 1984 debut, Love Medicine, a woman dies in the cold walking home.
You could also pick up the work of Sherman Alexie. Though it is technically classified as a “young adult” novel, his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is better than most of the thin, emotionally muted novels about Brooklyn life that seem to churn from the presses every year. His Reservation Blues is also a favourite of mine, which resurrects a murdered blues singer on a 1990s reservation. Told with Alexie’s characteristic blend of agony and exuberance, it’s so absorbing you’re likely to resent being called to dinner at all.
If memoir is more your thing, I’m an admirer of Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave, which traces her coming of age as a writer in Oklahoma. Poets’ memoirs are always the best kind, given how poets tend to see things from unusual angles. “A story matrix connects all of us,” Harjo argues at one point. “There are rules, processes, and circles of responsibility in this world.” You’ll find yourself thinking that she’s absolutely right.