While attending the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Denver, I was reminded of the importance of remembering the true history behind Thanksgiving. I saw someone in attendance wearing this shirt, which reads: “Genocide—Poverty—Hunger / No Thanks / No Giving! / What are you Celebrating? / Give Thanks Everyday.
For most people I know, Thanksgiving is about spending time with friends and family, having the day off work and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly. I would hazard a guess that probably 95 percent of Americans don’t even know that there were at least two “first” Thanksgivings.
The story most of us know is of the day in 1621 when Pilgrims and Native Americans supposedly shared in a harvest feast. For what really happened at this time, I defer to Dr. Tingba Apidta, who notes:
According to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though it later became known as ‘Thanksgiving,’ the Pilgrims never called it that. And amidst the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony is some of the most terrifying bloodshed in New World history.
The Pilgrims invited the Indian Sachem Massasoit to their feast, and it was Massasoit, engaging in the tribal tradition of equal sharing, who then invited ninety or more of his Indian brothers and sisters–to the annoyance of the 50 or so ungrateful Europeans. No turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie was served; they likely ate duck or geese and the venison from the five deer brought by Massasoit. In fact, most, if not all, of the food was probably brought and prepared by the Indians, whose 10,000-year familiarity with the cuisine of the region had kept the whites alive.
The Pilgrim crop had failed miserably that year, but the agricultural expertise of the Indians had produced twenty acres of corn, without which the Pilgrims would have surely perished. The Indians often brought food to the Pilgrims, who came from England ridiculously unprepared to survive and hence relied almost exclusively on handouts from the overly generous Indians–thus making the Pilgrims the western hemisphere’s first welfare recipients.
The fact that the hospitality, the sense of community and inter-humanity is what kept the whites alive is lost in the stories we learn in the U.S. education system. So, too, is the savagery of the Pilgrims. As Apitda notes, “Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement or even murder.”
What is also conveniently left out of our mainstream history is the fact that in the years following that unhappy meal, the majority of indigenous peoples in the area were either murdered firsthand or secondhand (via diseases of white folks).
As Eric Vieth of Dangerous Intersection reminds us: “Hepatitis, smallpox, chickenpox and influenza killed between 90 percent and 96 percent of the native Americans living in coastal New England.”
This brings me to another myth: that Pilgrims and Puritans were God-worshipping people who merely sought religious freedom, rather than power, land and wealth. In fact, as Mitchel Cohen points out, these “settlers” used their religion to justify the persecution, enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples.
Speaking of persecution and murder brings me to the second First Thanksgiving—the one in 1637 that occurred near the Mystic River and involved the slaughter of at least 700 Pequot Indians. This is the real First Thanksgiving, the one so-named by the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As Mitchel Cohen relates (emphasis mine):
Thanksgiving, in reality, was the beginning of the longest war in the U.S.– the extermination of the Indigenous peoples. Thanksgiving day was first proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, not to offer thanks for the Indians saving the Pilgrims that’s yet another re-write of the actual history but to commemorate the massacre of 700 indigenous men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance in their own house.
Gathered at this place, they were attacked by mercenaries, English and Dutch. The Pequots were ordered from the building and as they came forth they were killed with guns, swords, cannons and torches. The rest were burned alive in the building. The very next day the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to ‘give thanks’ for the massacre. For the next 100 years a governor would ordain a day to honor a bloody victory, thanking god the ‘battle’ had been won.
Want to read more about this? See Where White Men Fear To Tread by Russell Means and Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, by R. Drinnon, 1990.
There was no turkey, no happy exchange, no “sharing” between Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples at this Thanksgiving. Rather, Indigenous Peoples gave, and Pilgrims took.
It is the sweetened 1621 version that President Lincoln harkened back to when declaring a national holiday. As Glen Ford notes: “Lincoln surveyed a broken nation and attempted nation-rebuilding, based on the purest white myth. The same year that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he renewed the national commitment to a white manifest destiny that began at Plymouth Rock.”
This “white manifest destiny” is yet another piece of the imperial puzzle that we sweep under the rug. What goes unspoken in the historical renderings of this time is race—we are talking about not merely Pilgrims or Puritans, but about whites, and about a white supremacist ideology that sought to enslave and/or eradicate all peoples of color.
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.
Story originally posted on Professor, What If?