Hours before the sun rose and turkeys went in the oven, a ceremonial fire illuminated traditional dancing and drum at the Mexican Heritage Plaza early Thursday morning.
Organized by local Aztec dance group Calpulli Tonalehqueh, the 8th annual UnThanksgiving event in East San Jose was a way to honor the history of indigenous peoples in America.
“We all wanted to recognize that it is a National Day of Mourning, that many people in the community, including us, don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” said Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado, a fire keeper, organizer and member of Calpulli Tonalehqueh. “There is a narrative there that really needs to be uplifted.”
The reflective UnThanksgiving ceremony includes an altar surrounded by a circle of ceremonial flowers and herbs, an elder reading documents from the Wampanoag people and traditional dancing. While the International Indian Treaty Council has hosted its own sunrise event on Alcatraz Island since 1975, Alvarado helped start this event as a more accessible option for those in the South Bay to experience a ceremony she’s known since childhood.
With the council’s blessing, the event is a mixing pot of cultures, combining their own indigenous customs with traditions and abilities from groups like the American Indian Alliance, Chairman Valentin Lopez and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, San Jose Brown Berets and Akoma Arts, a local African drumming and dance group.
That communal approach not only honors people indigenous to Northern California, but also works to bring other folks together who want to look beyond today’s Thanksgiving customs of shopping, parades and “Pilgrims and Indians” feasting together.
“There’s a small but growing movement of people who are looking to do something different and who want to opt out, because there’s quite a big push of mainstream commercialization,” Alvarado said. “People need an opportunity to learn about it from friends and family, and because it is not actually part of mainstream culture to talk about what actually did happen, it’s hard.”
While most people are taught in school that the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together in 1621 to peacefully break bread, the subsequent history is bloodier as thousands of Native people were killed by English colonists who seized their land and forced them into slavery in the years that followed.
Asking questions and learning new histories can be even harder when national rhetoric questions any critical thinking about the holiday. President Donald Trump told supporters at a Florida rally earlier this week he’s against any push for a name change from the “radical left.”
“As we gather for Thanksgiving, you know, some people want to change the name Thanksgiving. They don’t want to use the term Thanksgiving,” Trump said. “People have different ideas why it shouldn’t be called Thanksgiving, but everybody in this room, I know, loves the name Thanksgiving. And we’re not changing.”
But recognizing the sunrise ceremony doesn’t mean the full denial of Thanksgiving itself, organizers said.
“I love getting up in the morning and doing UnThanksgiving, taking a nap and then going with my blood family and spending that time in a positive way,” said Corina Cihuachimalli Herrera-Loera, who is also a Calpulli Tonalehqueh fire carrier, or Chicomecoatl. “We still have family just focusing on the turkey and the dinner – including my mom – and there’s nothing wrong with that, because family time and sharing food is great.”
But thinking about her own daughter, she enjoys staying involved with events like UnThanksgiving to work to create a more informed future.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge what’s happened before us… and acknowledge the atrocities that have happened to the people of this land,” Herrera-Loera said. “That way we can continue to move forward in a good way, continue to live and share this space in peaceful harmony.”
Assemblymember Ash Kalra agrees that people can simultaneously enjoy the holiday while reflecting on the past.
“Thanksgiving, I think if done well, has you thinking about what you’re grateful for and spending genuine time with your family and people you care about. So, it’s not as if there aren’t genuine benefits to the cultural tradition,” said Kalra, who represents East San Jose. “But the fact that it’s also masked in this sense of the Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread and that is some part of our distant past that we’ve moved beyond is a missing link.”
Kalra – who goes to UnThanksgiving every year – sees it as an opportunity for those who are not indigenous to learn more about how the holiday exists in lives across San Jose and the country as a whole.
“It’s showing respect to our neighbors and showing respect to people who have a very different feeling this time of year than most Americans may,” Kalra said. “Being there in support, solidarity, and ultimately learning something yourself, I think, helps to change perspectives.”