In the United States, the fourth Thursday of November casts two reflections in mankind’s rearview mirror: one idyllic and one melancholic. The idyllic reflection belongs to Thanksgiving, a holiday whose origin stems from the gratitude European settlers expressed to Native Americans at a three-day feast in November 1621.
The indigenous people had taught the European settlers to live off the land, preventing them from starving and dying off as a new colony. So, when the settlers’ first corn harvest proved plentiful, they felt so indebted that they shared their food with the local people to thank them.
From that point forward, the tradition of feasting with friends and loved ones to pause and reflect on blessings persisted for centuries for different reasons (e.g., recovering from a drought). It evolved over time, but it has always centered on establishing goodwill.
For that reason, President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863, a time when U.S. citizenry was split by civil war and needed a neutral reason for fellowship. So, although it began with a focus on Native Americans, the occasion’s essence wasn’t tied to cultural distinctions; they were coincidental, even if memorable.
Thus, cultural distinctions weren’t necessary to perpetuating the tradition, and today’s Thanksgiving spirit transcends boundaries of all kinds (ethnic, national, etc.) and is anchored in all-encompassing gratitude.
Despite its heartwarming purpose, however, Thanksgiving can’t escape its association with the plight of Native Americans. What started out in the 1620s as a mutually beneficial alliance between the European settlers and indigenous people devolved into unfathomable and irreversible loss for Native Americans. Consequently, the descendants of those and other Native Americans see the melancholic reflection of Thanksgiving, not the idyllic one.
Although strife wasn’t prevalent between the settlers and the natives at that first November feast, their coming together established a milestone in settler-native relations. To those who perceive that milestone as inauspicious, whether Native Americans or their sympathizers, that milestone demarcates Native Americans’ prosperity from their decline.
And for that reason, an alternative Thanksgiving tradition emerged in 1975, one often referred to as “Unthanksgiving” to convey its iconoclastic nature.
The objective of Unthanksgiving is twofold: remind people about the losses Native Americans suffered because the arrival of Europeans, and celebrate Native Americans’ continued survival in spite of those losses.
Rather than gathering with family for a sumptuous dinner and exchanging proverbial gratitude lists, celebrants of Unthanksgiving gather at sunrise with anyone who shares their desire to honor Native Americans and promote their rights. And they do this not in people’s homes but on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California. (There is also a related event in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that is a protest called the National Day of Mourning.)
The festivities on Alcatraz are part of the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, held intentionally on the same day as Thanksgiving, from roughly 4 to 9 a.m. PT. The island is closed for the day to regular visitors, but ticketholders for the ceremony may take a ferry there for the event.
Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 415-981-7625 (ROCK) or at the ticket booth (credit/debit cards only, no cash) at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. (Note: All visitors must wear a proper face covering while in the boarding queue at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing and while aboard Alcatraz City Cruises’ ferries.)
Merchandise sales are prohibited on the island, so the celebration isn’t about money; it’s about cultural immersion. Participants enjoy the nature-rich ambiance generated by the rising sun, and they are treated to Native American music, dancing and other indigenous traditions.
The event is organized by the International Indian Treaty Council to commemorate a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island by the Indians of All Tribes from Nov. 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971. The goal of the occupation was to establish an Indian university, a cultural center and a museum on the island. Indians of All Tribes describes its conception and mission as follows:
Indians of All Tribes was formed to support the Alcatraz Indigenous Occupation in 1969. Native students throughout the California Universities took the island to get the federal government to honor treaties with all of the tribal nations. Federal laws regarding federal surplus property further supported treaty provisions to give lands vacated by the federal government back to the Tribes. The occupation of Alcatraz was a strategy to get the federal government to honor their agreements and laws with Native people by presenting this issue in front of people in the U.S. and the world.
The pan-tribal organization claimed the island according to the Treaty of Fort Laramie (aka the Sioux Treaty of 1868). During the occupation, many Native Americans joined the Civil Rights movement that was gaining traction in the U.S. and spoke out for indigenous peoples’ rights.
Ultimately, however, the occupation dwindled and was forcefully ended by the federal government. In his essay on the occupation, American Indian history expert Dr. Troy Johnson explains how armed federal marshals, FBI agents and special forces police swarmed the island and removed its remaining 15 occupants: five women, four children and six unarmed Indian men.
Despite the implication of the holiday’s name – and some people’s interpretation of it, perhaps – Unthanksgiving can be celebrated alongside Thanksgiving. Each reflection of this day in November is distinct, neither competing with nor overtaking the other – if observed as intended.
For Thanksgiving, truly reflect on what you have, not on what you don’t have. Pay attention to things you take for granted that many don’t have, such as access to potable water and shelter from the elements, and to things that you have despite all odds being against you, such as surviving a would-be terminal illness. Studies abound that have proven a high-impact link between gratitude and overall wellness, both mental and physical. One Harvard study from August 2021 states this plainly: “[G]ratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” So, enjoy the food and all, but don’t deprive yourself of indulging in some sweet Thanksgiving spirit too.
And for Unthanksgiving, make an effort to honor and support Native Americans. Even if you can’t attend this year’s sunrise ceremony (or listen to its broadcast), you can read about Native American history and modern-day culture, listen to Native American music, shop at a Native American-owned business, volunteer at Native American nonprofit organizations, and so forth. You could even do this as a group activity while gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, really. Don’t waste the opportunity to celebrate a unique two-for-one holiday on the fourth Thursday of November each year.
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.