In my first post about Thanksgiving the other day, I pointed out some of the uncomfortable facts left out of the mainstream history of this holiday. Another bit of historical amnesia is the linkage between the genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery.
As Dan Brook pointed out in his 2002 Counterpunch piece “Celebrating Genocide,” “1619 marks the first year that human beings were brutally ‘imported’ from Africa to become slaves in America, if they happened to survive the cruel capture and horrific Atlantic crossing.” And anyone who knows the true history of Columbus knows he attempted to enslave indigenous peoples from the get go. Each of these atrocities was precipitated by the same thing: greed. Each was justified by the same ideology: white supremacy. Each translated into a capitalist system shaped by racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism.
Thus, with Thanksgiving, as Brook argues, what we are in effect giving thanks for is “being the invader, the exploiter, the dominator, the greedy, the gluttonous, the colonizer, the thief, indeed the genocidaire…” We are giving thanks for what bell hooks terms “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” (For a great video link of hooks analyzing this paradigm, see here.)
In yet another astute reconsideration of the holiday, Robert Jensen asserts:
Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.
When an indigenous person was finally asked to speak truth to power–350 years after the invasion by Pilgrims–his speech was deemed unacceptable. As detailed at the site United American Indians of New England:
Three hundred fifty years after the Pilgrims began their invasion of the land of the Wampanoag, their ‘American’ descendants planned an anniversary celebration. Still clinging to the white schoolbook myth of friendly relations between their forefathers and the Wampanoag, the anniversary planners thought it would be nice to have an Indian make an appreciative and complimentary speech at their state dinner. Frank James was asked to speak at the celebration. He accepted. The planners, however , asked to see his speech in advance of the occasion, and it turned out that Frank James’ views–based on history rather than mythology–were not what the Pilgrims’ descendants wanted to hear. Frank James refused to deliver a speech written by a public relations person. Frank James did not speak at the anniversary celebration.
The silencing of Frank James serves as one specific example of the silencing of indigenous peoples and their history that has occurred since colonization. This is why, as Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, puts it mildly, “For a Native American, the story of Thanksgiving is not a very happy one.”
Yet in one book my daughter read in her early school years, the Indians (the term the book used) were “so happy” when the “nice Pilgrims” arrived. This lie is widespread in our refashioning of the Thanksgiving narrative; it is the lie put forth in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (as noted by Renee at Womanist Musings) as well as via virtually all pre-college curriculum.
So, what would a socially just response to Thanksgiving be? Jensen argues for “a truth-and-reconciliation process that would not only correct the historical record but also redistribute land and wealth.” He also accedes this is unlikely, but given this he argues that,
The question for left/radical people is: What political activity can we engage in to keep alive this kind of critique until a time when social conditions might make a truly progressive politics possible?
His answer is that we must acknowledge the true history of the day and his writing suggests we must do this with everyone we meet–whether it is the well-wisher at the grocery store or our own grandmother. Yet, Jensen realizes this is no easy feat. However, as he notes, “we need to help each other tell the truth, even when the truth is not welcome.”
Jensen writes “As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.”
At my house, we will look forward to the day when we truly live in a post-colonial world, when imperialism has been eradicated and when conquests such as those of the white intruders on this land, what is now called the United States, no longer take place. This will be a time for a true thanksgiving celebration.
Above: a sanitized and historically incorrect image of “The First Thanksgiving” (c. 1912-1915) by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, from Wikimedia Commons.