Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Several years ago, an Israeli friend participated in a vacation home swap with an acquaintance in Europe. When she returned to her home in Jerusalem, she noticed a bus timetable on her kitchen table. To her surprise, it was not the schedule for Egged, the Israeli bus company that is ubiquitous throughout Israel. Rather, it was a schedule for Arab buses that run in her neighborhood. My friend had never noticed the Arab buses. Half of her work colleagues are Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, but she had never seen the Arab buses that ran by her home, nor the people who rode them. Once she acknowledged her blind spot (with heartfelt shame), she began to use the Arab bus line at times herself, avoiding the more crowded Egged buses on some of her regular routes. 

We all live among people we don’t see. Our blind spots are built in—they are part of being human. Only God is omniscient. But when our eyes are opened and we see other human beings living separate and often invisible lives beside and among us, we are faced with a choice. One option is to re-shut our eyes in an effort to return to a more comfortable, familiar, and separate past. Another is to try to silence or erase those who enter our field of vision, maybe even employing violence to force them back out. The third option is to integrate their lives with our own, enriching and expanding possibilities for a shared future. 

As Thanksgiving approaches, non-Native Americans who believe that our country has acted unjustly toward native people are confronted with a choice about how we will celebrate this beloved holiday. Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation of the novel Killers of the Flower Moon brings just one story of an indigenous community to light, one of countless examples of non-native Americans acting both intentionally and unintentionally to rid our country of its indigenous population. The survivors of the Osage people still live among us, and Scorsese cast some of them in his film so we would see them as they appear today. The film was not made to be a guilt trip for non-Native Americans, but it does open our eyes to some of what was and what is. Our faiths teach us that witnesses have a responsibility to correct injustice. We don’t have to wait for a meaningful collective process to begin to right the wrongs of the past. We can and should change our own assumptions and habits based on new awareness and knowledge. 

Dennis Zotigh, a Kiowa, San Juan Pueblo and Santee Dakota Indian and Cultural Specialist and Writer at Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, calls Thanksgiving “a national holiday that romanticizes the 1621 encounter between (my) ancestors and English settlers, and erases the deadly conflicts that followed.” In light of that, and perhaps in spite of that, he asks:

“Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National Native American Heritage Day.”

It may not ever make sense for non-Native Americans to observe Thanksgiving in the same way that Native Americans do. But as Americans who feel grateful to our ancestors for leaving their native lands and coming to these shores, we can observe it in ways that acknowledge and show gratitude to those who were here before 1621. Doing so involves creativity, and a willingness to give up some components of the holiday that we may have felt were essential in the past. You can find some suggestions here.

Toward the end of her most recent novel, The Future, Naomi Alderman writes: “Nothing can be permanently settled or solved. No state is perfect; no utopia exists but that it leaves someone out. All we can be is alert … to the changing winds. To ask ourselves in each new situation: What would we hate anyone to do to us? And: Who have we forgotten? To exist in motion, falling forward, trying to bend our own histories toward what is fair and kind, what is sensible and good. We will keep failing, but final success was never the point.”

This is the human enterprise—the enterprise that keeps us humble yet ambitious. We can celebrate this Thanksgiving by bending our own histories toward a future that includes those we see and those we don’t see, and by asking God to bless us all with compassion and protection as we make our way, imperfectly, toward a world of greater vision, wholeness, and peace.