a more honest thanksgiving.

I love Thanksgiving. It’s always been such a sweet holiday for us. We have a fun Refuge family feast the Sunday before Thanksgiving that warms my soul. My adult kids come home from across the USA. We see a bunch of movies together and eat a lot of junk food. On Thanksgiving day we play flag football and host a fun and sweet dinner for everyone who needs a place to be. We cut down our Christmas tree the day after and eat some more. Then my kids fly away Sunday morning, and we are left with full hearts.

I don’t feel guilty for celebrating.

Gratitude is usually always a good thing. It heals. It helps bring light into darkness. It binds us together. It’s a spiritual practice.

But I also think it’s important to be more honest about the roots of Thanksgiving.

The reality is that most of what we learned about it and how we celebrate it is completely contrary to the truth. There was an entire civilization living on this land before the ships landed and white people began pouring out to settle here. The Native Americans were decimated in the process. Literally.

Colonization has ruined far too many cultures, and when we forget this part of our history we live in denial.

I read the Doctrine of Discovery a few years ago and the words have been embedded in my mind every since. Papal decrees in the 1400’s, it laid some of the tracks for what we live with today—oppression, discrimination, separation, and prejudice. All in the name of Jesus. The destructive roots of Christian colonialism are deep and strong.

Here’s an excerpt from the one in 1452:

“We weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation…granted among other things free and ample faculty….to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Sarcens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wherever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to convert them to his and their use and profit…”

The roots are insidious.

The generational consequences are deep.

And now, the fruit is rotten. 

It’s been happening for generations in our country but more are beginning to see the fallout of our denial, our ethnocentricity, our imbalanced power, our wicked ways as a nation in a new way this season.

And like all healing, the way to something different is to begin to be more honest about it.

It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Thanksgiving. It doesn’t mean that focusing on gratitude is superficial. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat good food and be glad to be together.

However, I do think we have a responsibility to learn more about the realities of our history.

How many massacres we never heard about.

How many narratives we believe that are completely slanted.

How many ways entire pieces of our history have been whitewashed, edited, or removed entirely.

On the whole, my experience is that Christians, who are called to be ambassadors of peace and healing and restoration on this earth, are the ones who buy into the propaganda most easily. We hook into the stories we’ve been told and buy them. We put on our rose-colored glasses. We often cling to our comfort and avoid dissonance, sometimes at all costs.

We’ve got so much to learn.

I’ve got so much to learn.

This post by Kaitlin Curtice is really helpful and filled with excellent easy-to-read links if you want to read more today. 

If you want to find out which tribes lived on the land you currently reside, this is a good place to start.

I am out of my league in so many technical conversations about history but I have tried to build this into my experience as a person of faith—usually, what happened and what is happening to people on the underside of power is ugly, destructive, and divisive.

All roads usually lead to power, and power isn’t always about money.

This weekend so many of us will be remembering what we’re thankful for in the midst of struggles and weirdness and the realities of real life.

Enjoy it if you can (and reach out to someone else you know who might be struggling this holiday).

And, at the same time, I hope we can also honor and remember—the first “Thanksgiving” wasn’t something to be thankful for at all.

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Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Kathy, thank you so much for sharing my resources! Grateful that you’re willing to enter the conversation.

  • Yes the “Doctrine of Discovery” was a power grab, land grab, conquering grab. But remember it was a time of those in power to conquer or be conquered. Much of the lands of Christiandom had just come through an assault by the Saracens/Turks/Islam with the bulk of Christians martyred and killed for their faith and the ancient lands of Christianity and Judaism, much of North Africa and into a large portion of Europe were overrun. Unfortunately it was also a time where Eastern Christians had already split with the West and unless they bowed to Rome they could expect no help with the Saracens. It is in this climate where Christians began to protest (Protestant Reformation), thus pilgrims traveling from one country to another to freely Worship yet still slaves to a “superiority” mindset over “barbarians”.
    On to North Americans…
    I finished reading a book called “1491” by Charles C Mann (2nd Edition) based on the most current archeological artifacts and narratives of the Americas. It has a very different point of view that I had not heard in this dialogue and may upset some of the “politically correct” narratives. It mentioned there was quite a bit of tribal warfare between opposing tribes along with disease wiping out entire tribes brought by European traders & slavers. Another good read is “Mayflower” (I forget the author).

    Chief Massasoit had been playing a political angle for better positioning and protection with the two rival interpreters playing rival factions which all erupted in violence. Chief Massasoit (smaller/weaker tribe) actually gave land with promised conditions of “my enemies are yours” so when another tribal group attacked, (a set up by one of the interpreters) the “pilgrims” were obligated to kill the opposing party. Long story short, rival tribal groups played opposing sides with various European factions all the way up to the war of 1812. English hiring one tribe to fight European Americans who hired other native tribes. European Americans having no idea that they brought diseases that native Americans had no immune system to fight against. It was a time period of European colonialism which spread across the globe. But let us not forget the conquests of the Asiatic cultures, the Turks & Islam conquests, or all the way back to the various warring tribes since the time of Cain and Abel! Us against Them… fighting over resources and differences. Thanksgiving is a reminder we all are part of one guilty tribe or another in some way or another and there comes a time to lay down our “arms” and open up our “arms” to “embrace the other without loss of the self” as Miroslav Volf would say in the latest book I’m reading, “Exclusion and Embrace” given to me by my sister, Dr. Deborah Dunn, PhD.

  • Thank you for this! We can absolutely hold space for both-gratitude (and friends/family) and honoring this tragic history.

  • thanks, kathy. Good words. I finally saw it in black and white, the words that my first ancestor to live in the US was a slave owner. I tried to ignore it. But the record shows that in 1731, my forebear, Johann Matern had 3 sons, 3 slaves and 5 cattle. He was deemed in 1728 as a man who deserved to have slaves. I think the French Government gifted him a few people to own. Wow. And a few others had more. They bought and sold men and women in the largest slave market in the US, in Congo Square of New Orleans. That’s part of my legacy.


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