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Organizers of upcoming ‘Decolonize Thanksgiving’ concert on why the truth matters

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How to define decolonization? Minnesota- and Arizona-based singer/songwriter David Huckfelt has a simple answer: “I mean, to me it doesn’t take very many words to speak the truth.” 

Here in Minnesota, Huckfelt has taken up the cause by organizing the first-ever Decolonize Thanksgiving concert, featuring Huckfelt and his band the Unarmed Forces and songwriters Annie Humphrey, Joe Rainey Sr. and Keith Secola.  The show takes place Friday at the Hook and Ladder Theater in Minneapolis, and will benefit the non-profit ministry First Nations Kitchen.  

By now it’s no secret that the true story of the beginning of Thanksgiving is much darker than its myth, rooted in the same genocide that started the United States. President Lincoln started the official celebration in 1863 as a unifying feast, at a time when all-out wars, battles, and skirmishes between settlers and Natives over land and resources were reaching a final vanquishing point. 

“Rather than being some kind of confrontational event, ‘Decolonize Thanksgiving’ means to me that we try to say the truth about this holiday that theoretically is around gratitude,” said Huckfelt. “To me, it doesn’t diminish in the slightest the human level of joy and love we have for our family and friends, and the appreciation that comes along with Thanksgiving. It doesn’t diminish it to talk about the truth of the facts around the founding of the United States. 

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Huckfelt said no one event will set the record straight, but connecting the dots between today and the past can raise awareness of how romanticizing a manifest destiny outlook has shaped the country. 

“You know, maturity is holding two separate and distinctly different thoughts at the same time, so you bet we’re gonna celebrate the fact that we’re alive and we can gather together, and also, we’re going to try to have some Indigenous artists help fill out that historical perspective on this holiday,” he said.

Secola, an Ojibwe-American band leader who splits time between Arizona and Minnesota, said Native people are plural.

“They’re able to straddle the social, and economic, and political and even manifest destiny meanings of Thanksgiving and the colonialism. So Native people have normalized the activity of families being together (on Thanksgiving); I think that’s a bridge that all Americans are open to, that it’s really about family. So I think that’s how Native Americans straddle it, because the myth of Pocahontas and Jamestown and everything like this, it’s hard to believe those things anyways — it’s like Santa Claus or something like that, so it’s pretty easy to decolonize in our way,” he said.

Courtesy of Keri Pickett

Joe Rainey Sr., second from left, brings his “avant-garde pow wow music” to the Hook and Ladder on Friday.

“Native people, we’re always sharing, always loving, and so I can see how they would be very neighborly, right?,” said Secola. “So some of the beautiful things of that, of this American culture, survive and I think that’s really the essence of Thanksgiving, is that we define the decolonization by finding the essence of love and giving.”

In Minnesota, the backdrop to the first Thanksgiving was the aftermath of the so-called Dakota uprising of the previous year, wherein the U.S. military declared war on Dakota people, who had been banished from the state. As such, the gauzy story of the Pilgrims and Natives reaching a harmonious union towards an annual feast has long been exaggerated and exposed as propaganda used to obscure the truth about the country’s colonial past, and in recent decades has been marked by the National Day of Mourning. 

Humphrey said she thinks about what the late, great poet, singer and activist John Trudell said: “decolonization and everything is in our head, it all starts in your head and knowing where you’re from, so I don’t feel like I have to demonstrate anything anti- Thanksgiving or anything as long as I know… I don’t really have a radical feeling like I think that we should all be like this or that.

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“I think that it’s just trying to have gratitude all the time. Sometimes I worry that the dominant society, they don’t have enough ceremony, or they don’t look at life as revolving around ceremony. Everything is a ceremony. Feeding my chickens in the morning; my first cup of coffee, grinding the coffee beans to me, that is ceremonial. So I think Thanksgiving [has become] this American holiday that celebrates ceremony and gratitude.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Keith Secola and David Huckfelt shown at the 2021 Protect The Water/Stop Line 3 event.

All of which is good and healthy, though Huckfelt added, “I feel the way about Thanksgiving the way I feel about many things, which is that we don’t need a colonial reason to gather together, to be together and tell each other we love each other.”

Huckfelt also notes that’s It’s no mistake that the Decolonize Thanksgiving concert takes place on so-called Black Friday, the capitalist high holy day that ironically overshadows Native American Heritage Day, commemorated the same day.

“I’m not a historian, I’m not Native, there’s a long list of things I’m not; this work of attention and doing something about it is messy work,” said Huckfelt. “Keith, Annie and Joe represent sort of different ends of Indigenous music right now, right here. So it’s exciting to me. It’s also good to let you know it’s like Miles Davis says: ‘I’ll play it for you first and tell you what it is later.’ What’s ‘Decolonize Thanksgiving?’ I don’t know. Come down to the Hook and Ladder and you’ll see it and you can figure it out from how it feels.”

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