Last week I attended a cultural celebration at our local literacy center. The room was bright and full of music and movement and my kids bounced from table to table trying their hand at crafts from communities all over the world. While they were working on a smudging feather with a woman at the Indigenous American table, I sat down and asked about Native communities and historic sites here in Kentucky. I told her I’ve had a hard time finding much information at our local library beyond the colonizing history books which celebrate how many “savages” early homesteaders killed near their settler towns like the one I now call home.
She sighed at the mention of those whitewashed narratives and said, “There are actually several Native Historical Sites here in Kentucky. Are you familiar with the Melungeon?” I shook my head and she explained that it’s a group with ancestral connections to Turkish, Moorish, Jewish, Spanish, Portuguese, African, and European immigrants who settled in what we now call Appalachia alongside Native communities before the first Jamestown colony was formed. “Because of their mixed race heritage,” she explained, “they were often persecuted and denied basic political and social rights and as a result over the years many groups have assimilated, causing a loss of our entire culture and way of life.”
I immediately felt suspicious. I thought she’d tell me the name of a museum I could check out, instead she’s telling me there’s a whole Indigenous population I’ve never heard of? How can that be true? I’ve been doing my research! The woman graciously closed the gap of silence between us, inviting me to attend her spring solstice retreat and learn more about her community. I took the handout and felt myself frowning. Is she just appropriating? Is she making this up? I was ignorant once but now I know things and I won’t be fooled. Surely this would have come up in my research! She continued to help my kids wind leather straps around their feathers, explaining to them how smudging is used in ceremonies and everyday activities and I faded back into the crowd of parents, my curiosity strangled by my anxious internal critic.
I share this embarrassing internal dialogue because it’s such a good example of White Certainty – a trait I attribute to being raised in a culture which placed a high value on authority systems and the version of the facts they offered. White Certainty is the unquestioning confidence I have always had in my white teachers and leaders and, by extension, in my white self to discern and understand the truest version of the facts. White Certainty taught me every colonizing myth as a child, and it continues to color over, limit, and distort every diverse story I engage with, no matter how ‘woke’ I try to become.
White Certainty, still thriving in my own heart and mind, is what cast suspicion on a woman who was at that very moment sharing traditions and history from her own community because her story didn’t fit with my limited knowledge. It fed me a steady stream of judgments: What authority does she have? Has someone else (a white person) vouched for her? Why haven’t I heard of this community? It made me miss out on an opportunity to learn, which was my goal in the first place!
If we are aiming to root out systemic racism and reconcile with our Native Brothers and Sisters, we must stop posturing ourselves as experts about their experience. We must stop thinking about this process of unlearning and relearning as linear, as something we will one day complete and then move on with our lives. Dismantling institutions built by patriarchy, white supremacy, and ethnic cleansing will require the faithful work of many generations.
I speak these words first to myself: a woman who hungers for absolutes and answers and to prove herself worthy of your time and readership. I confess I don’t want to give up these values. I like to think of myself as good and right and respectable. I want to earn the respect of my peers of color. I want to position myself as far away from “those ignorant racists” as possible. At least I’m not as bad as them, I tell myself.
That last bit is what makes White Certainty so insidious. So “respectable”. It calls out a few of the really bad people and then pats itself on the back for being so brave. The real work of antiracism must begin in me, in my own heart and values and history and fears. White culture did not teach me to listen to or hold the tension of diverse experiences and trauma, skills which are both preamble and postlude to any learning we might hope to achieve.
If we begin from a place of humble curiosity, we will find endless opportunities to learn from others and be transformed by their stories. And isn’t that what we really want? Not to be experts, protected from accusations of ignorance, but to be good neighbors: carrying stories and sharing traditions with open hands, doing the work of decolonizing and anti-racism together?
Of course, unlearning historical myths isn’t just a thanksgiving activity, but if you are looking for resources for your family, school, faith community, or workplace, here are a few excellent voices that can guide you:
The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday, by author and chef Sean Sherman
Sean Sherman has also published this excellent cook book which our family has used to incorporate Indigenous flavors into our family meals: The Sioux Chef
A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families compiled by Center For Racial Justice in Education
“All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker
For an extensive reexamination of the thanksgiving myth: This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman
A Kid’s Guide To Native American History, by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder. This interactive book teaches children about Indigenous culture, foods, and history with short informational texts and engaging activities you can do at home.