The Heart of Place

As the United States prepares to celebrate a national holiday of thanksgiving, for many Indigenous People this holiday is observed as a day of mourning. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all who have been marginalized, displaced, and attempted to be erased. East Shore Unitarian Church and Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation in West Seattle are collaborating in the planning of this service in each of our congregations, connecting through music, readings and message. As an act of faith, we bear witness to the heart of place, lifting up the stories and prayers of Indigenous People, the original and continuous inhabitants of this land and sea.


My chosen name is Leilani and I’m a lifelong resident of the occupied lands of the Coastal Salish, specifically the Duwamish People. But land acknowledgement of traditional and rightful Indigenous stewardship is not enough; it must be accompanied with informed action in relationship. I stand with the Duwamish, Wanapum, Snohomish, and Chinook People who despite their continuing presence and resilience are still not recognized by the U.S. government.


In the U.S., Native Americans make up only 1.2% of the population and yet they’re more likely than any other group to be killed by the police, and have double the suicide rate with teens having the highest rate of any population in the U.S. NPR just reported 2 million U.S. residents don’t have access to clean water, with Native Americans the most affected. How do I feel about T-Day? I think of the generosity and hospitality of the Wampanoag People and I think there’s NO thanks in Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was a celebration of massacring Indigenous People and it’s currently a harmful whitewashing of ethnocide with Plymouth Rock a monument to racism.

I believe Thanksgiving is better acknowledged as the Day of Mourning and honored as such.

Taking Action

My family started attending Westside UU Congregation in 2011 and have found a warm community of social justice-minded folks. So what do we celebrate/ honor/ transform? What exactly can we do?

  1. Learn the real history of T-Day, not the myth
  2. Consider a different lens. Unthanksgiving or A Day of Atonement or Day of Mourning
  3. Support with $, time, and amplify voices of Indigenous leadership in their causes/ efforts
  4. Deeply listen to local Tribal Nations leaders/ issues presented and support in ways they ask
  5. Learn about settler colonialism and engage in disruption
  6. Go to a local Indigenous Nations Cultural Center or event
  7. Buy and support the work of Indigenous artists, artisans, authors, herbalists, and farmers
  8. Black Friday spend your $ with Inspired Natives stores/ events or online
  9. Dig into history of boarding schools in U.S. and Canada
  10. Learn about & support Leonard Peltier
  11. Learn about & support the work around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)
  12. Donate to local Native Cultural Events like our POW WOWs
  13. Work to end racist mascots
  14. Work to end harmful representations of Native Peoples in arts, crafts, & storytelling of within your school district
  15. Buy & share & donate Indigenous-authored children’s books
  16. Buy Indigenous authored cookbooks
  17. When you travel or plan to, learn about the local Indigenous People’s current issues/ causes and donate to their work or/ and their Cultural Center
  18. If you live here, become a Real Renter on and tell others about it
  19. Like and Follow the local Indigenous Peoples Facebook pages for their Cultural Center and amplify their voices on social media
  20. When we talk about Indigenous People and celebrating cultures, we should be including Black Cultures and Black People. If you don’t think about “Why?” fix it because it’s anti-Black racism.
  21. North, Central, and South American People are Indigenous People. Support the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)
  22. Support and get involved in environmental justice with Indigenous Leadership, for example learn about:
    1. Quannah Chasinghorse
    1. Helena Gualinga
    1. Makasa Looking Horse
    1. Amira Odeh Quiñones
    1. Feliquan Charlemagne
    1. Vic Barrett
  23. Learn about Indigenous Futurism: exploration without colonization and imperialism but with harmony, coexisting, evolution, storytelling, intentional holding of some things and letting go of others, Honoring ancestral knowledge and how ancestors were looking forward with math and sciences
  24. $upport A Tribe Called
  25. Do an Internet dive and read up on:
    1. settler colonialism
    1. cultural appropriation
    1. decolonize T-day
    1. decolonize education
    1. decolonize yoga
    1. decolonize food
    1. decolonize your mind

Beauty of Present Place

“No matter where you are in North America you are on Indigenous land. And so on this holiday, and any day, really, I urge people to explore a deeper connection to what are called “American” foods by understanding true Native-American histories, and begin using what grows naturally around us, and to support Native American growers. There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the Beauty of the present.” – Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef

Maybe there is no single or right way to do the upcoming holiday, but I would ask for silence for a moment to hold the complexity of mourning and privilege/ complicity, as we think about what we will celebrate and how we will act and what will we support going forward from here.

Leilani Davenberry is a healing practitioner, educator, activist, dancer, artist, parent, spouse, and writer. She can be found with her chosen family at community events, speaking, performing, knitting, and teaching. She and her spouse joined WSUU in 2011.

Heart of Place

I want to begin in gratitude to the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, the bridge minister at the Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation. This collaboration and shared theme of today’s worship was her idea and the following is her narrative and will also be read at Westside this morning.

Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, an American Indian tribe located in central Wisconsin reminds us,“stories are shaped by who we imagine the storyteller to be. Our worldview, our theologies, our spiritual inklings about creation and our origins cannot be separated from how we tell our stories, from who we name as heroes and who we name as villains, and from who we think might be speaking in the voice of the story itself.”

In 2015, Beacon Press published a long overdue book by Indigenous scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that challenges readers to learn US history through a narrative that centers the story, the experiences, and the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. In 2019, Beacon Press published an adaptation for young people by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. Upending myths and misinformation that have been broadcast by leadership and media, readers are asked to reconsider the origin story of the United States taught in schools to children.  These works were chosen by the Unitarian Universalist Common Read Selection Committee as the 2019-2020 common read, inviting UU congregations, communities, and individuals to learn the stories of trauma and resilience that are the Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

Next year, 2020, marks the 400th anniversary of the much-mythologized encounter at Plymouth between colonists and those native to the land. The UUA General Assembly 2020, in Providence, RI, will speak to the truths that contradict the mythology.

 As Leila Ettachfini wrote last year, “If you went to American public school, it’s likely you were taught a very sweet, incorrect version of the way this country came to be. You learned the little rhyme, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” You learned he “discovered” America, and later, after a successful harvest, you learned the pilgrims of Plymouth kindly invited local Indigenous people to a bountiful, joyful feast—turkey, legumes, and all.

 Some years later, the story start[s] to sound a little off: How can you discover a place where people already live? Why would Indigenous people willingly sit down with the very people that were massacring them and condemning them to slavery in England? The truth of Thanksgiving is disputed, but we do know the way it came to be is certainly more complex than a peaceful dinner between colonizers and the colonized.”

As Native Circle – The Longest Running Native American Educational Site on the Web, proclaims:

 “It is good to celebrate Thanksgiving, to be thankful for your blessings.  It is not good to distort history, to falsely portray the origin of this holiday and lie about the truth of its actual inception.

 ‘Thanksgiving’ did not begin as a peaceful, friendly relationship between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, Pequot and Narragansett people. 

Officially, the holiday we know as ‘Thanksgiving’ actually came into existence in the year 1637. Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed this first official day of Thanksgiving and feasting to celebrate the return of the colony’s men who had arrived safely from what is now Mystic, Connecticut.  They had gone there to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children, and Mr. Winthrop decided to dedicate an official day of ‘thanksgiving’ complete with a feast to ‘give thanks’ for their great ‘victory’.  This thanksgiving celebration became a custom that was observed every year. 

In 1777, all 13 of the first United States colonies held Thanksgiving celebrations – a continuation of that first ‘celebration’ in 1637.  In 1789, President George Washington declared November 26th a ‘National Day of Thanksgiving’.  And on October 3rd, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally made it official with a ‘Thanksgiving Proclamation’, declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday.  Thus, you can see that the American Thanksgiving holiday we know today is indelibly tied to that ‘first thanksgiving’ in 1637, which celebrated the massacre of hundreds of Native people.
As hard as it may be to believe, these are actual origins of our current Thanksgiving Day holiday.  Many American Indian people these days do not choose to observe this holiday and instead hold it as a ‘day of mourning’… “It might be surprising to learn that the cherished tradition of Thanksgiving is, in fact, the most nationalist of all holidays because it narrates the national origin myth,” writes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who began writing An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States after a conversation with Howard Zinn, author of a People’s History of the United States.  “Where is the Indigenous People’s history?” she asked him.  He replied that that was her book to write.  We unlearn and relearn stories and histories in layers and layers.  We can begin again in love.

The Elders of the Native Circle write: “It is our hope that children’s plays about ‘the first Thanksgiving’, complete with Indians and pilgrims chumming at the dinner table, will someday be a thing of the past.  Why perpetuate a lie?  Let us face the truths of the past, and give thanks that we are learning to love one another for the rich human diversity we share.”

In this holy place, we choose to face the truths of the past together and give thanks that we are learning to love one another in ways that honor our worth and dignity, free of dehumanizing lies and stories that justify harm.  When we are willing to bring holy, humble curiosity to what we are taught, we are practicing our faith.  When we ask “who is centered in this story and who is disappeared?,” and witness experiences that may be different from our own experiences or knowledge, we are practicing our faith.

 As the elders have written, “It is good to celebrate Thanksgiving, to be thankful for your blessings.  It is not good to distort history, to falsely portray the origin of this holiday and lie about the truth of its actual inception.

Let us celebrate the gifts of learning and unlearning together.  Let us give thanks for the possibility of coming home to ourselves and each other when we are willing to let go of pretty stories and live into the messy, challenging, healing stories at the heart of this place.  I give thanks for all of you and the love that is possible in this world.