At the outset, I would like to note that I have relied on many useful scholars and writers to put together this post. The pieces I cite throughout the piece are as follows:
- “Thanksgiving: A Native American View,” by Jacqueline Keeler, published at AlterNet, 2000
- “Celebrating Genocide,” by Dan Brook, published at Counterpunch, 2002
- “Black Folks Guide to Understanding Thanksgiving,” by Dr. Tingba Apidta, an excerpt from The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks, 2003
- “Why I Hate Thanksgiving,” by Mitchel Cohen, published at Counterpunch, 2004 (updated version)
- “The American Thanksgiving: Rejoicing in Genocide and White Supremacy,” by Glen Ford, published at Black Agenda Report, 2005
- “No Thanks to Thanksgiving,” Robert Jensen, published at AlterNet, 2005
- “Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving,” by Robert Jensen, published at AlterNet, 2007
- “Let’s give thanks for selective memories on Thanksgiving,” by Eric Vieth, published at Dangerous Intersection, 2006
- “The Suppressed Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag,” published at United American Indians of New England
I would also like to give a nod to my anthropology professor of years ago, who, when I was a sophomore in college, was the first person to truly begin to open my eyes about Indigenous History. That semester, we read Changes in the Land. My feelings towards Thanksgiving, and US colonization, have been radically altered ever since.
To begin with a speculation, I would hazard a guess that probably 95% of Americans do not learn 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. He notes that
“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 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 class of welfare recipients. 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 5 deer brought by Massasoit. In fact, most, if not all, of the food was most likely brought and prepared by the Indians, whose 10,000-year familiarity with the cuisine of the region had kept the whites alive up to that point.”
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 US education system. So too is the savagery of the Pilgrims – yes, the Pilgrims were the savage ones, not the indigenous peoples. As Apitda notes, “Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder.” Yes, gotta love those happy, God-fearing Pilgrims.
What is also conveniently left out of our historical (un)consciousness is the fact that in the years following that unhappy meal, the majority of Indigenous peoples were either murdered firsthand or else secondhand via the diseases of white folks. As Eric Vieth of Dangeorous Intersection reminds us, “hepatitis, smallpox, chickenpox and influenza killed between 90% and 96% of the native Americans living in coastal New England.” As Vieth further elucidates, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony called this plague “miraculous.” This was the lovely religion practiced at the time – a belief system that saw death of the indigenous population as a miracle, as something to be praised.
This brings me to another myth – that Pilgrims and Puritans (P/P) were God-worshipping people who merely sought religious freedom (rather than power, land, and wealth). In fact, as Mitchel Cohen points out, these peoples who supposedly only desired to worship how they saw fit, used their religion to justify the persecution, enslavement, and murder of indigenous peoples. And, they were not amiss in the persecution of their own either – the gender and class stratifications meant that there was a P/P elite and an oppressed P/P underclass.
Speaking of persecution and murder brings me to the 2nd ‘1st Thanksgiving” – the one of 1637 that occurred near the Mystic River and involved the slaughter of at least 700 Pequot Indians. This is the real 1st Thanksgiving – the one that was named as such 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. [For more information, see Where White Men Fear To Tread, by Russell Means, 1995; and Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, by R. Drinnon, 1990.]“
This 2nd Thanksgiving is the day which was actually recognized as such by the rulers of the time – and what they were giving thanks for was their massacre of indigenous peoples! Yet, in our sweetened version, we learn of the day in 1621. And, even this version is bent so far from truth as to be fiction – there was no turkey, no happy exchange, no ‘sharing’ between Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples. Rather, Indigenous Peoples GAVE, Pilgrims TOOK.
It is the sweetened 1621 version that President Lincoln harkened back to when declaring the day 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 all too often goes unspoken in the historical renderings of this time is race – is the fact that we are talking about not merely Pilgrims or Puritans, but about WHITES, and a white supremacist ideology thought sought to enslave and/or eradicate all peoples of color. The “white man’s burden” as analyzed infamously by Rudyard Kipling was not only a project of India and Africa, but also of the US – even though when “colonialism” is studied, the colonization of the US is often left unexamined. According to most curriculum, the US was not colonized, but settled (even though, hint hint, they called them colonies!).
Another bit of historical amnesia is the linkages 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 is “for 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.)
As Glen Ford argues,
“The necessity of genocide was the operative, working assumption of the expanding American nation.”Manifest Destiny” was born at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, later to fall (to paraphrase Malcolm) like a rock on Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, etc. Little children were taught that the American project was inherently good, Godly, and that those who got in the way were “evil-doers” or just plain subhuman, to be gloriously eliminated. The lie is central to white American identity, embraced by waves of European settlers who never saw a red person.”
In yet another astute reconsideration of the holiday, Robert Jensen asserts that “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.”
And the US certainly didn’t stop its genocidal practices once 95 to 99% of the indigenous peoples were killed. Rather, the US has supported and facilitated genocide in Indonesia, East Timor, Cambodia, has sat idly by genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, and has carried out military actions leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Vietnam and Iraq (just to name a few).
When an indigenous person was FINALLY asked to speak truth to power 350 YEARS AFTER the invasion by bloodthirsty, savage Pilgrims, his speech was deemed unacceptable. As detailed at the cite 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.”
To read what Frank James had planned to say, go here.
The silencing of Frank James serves as one specific example of the silencing of indigenous peoples and their history that has occurred since the colonization of the USA by the white killers (no, not ‘settlers’). This is why, as Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, puts it (rather mildly) “For a Native American, the story of Thanksgiving is not a very happy one.”
Keeler’s account of the Dakota view of giving is particularly telling:
“Among the Dakota, my father’s people, they say, when asked to give, “Are we not Dakota and alive?” It was believed that by giving there would be enough for all — the exact opposite of the system we live in now, which is based on selling, not giving.”
Keeler also reminds us that “Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples.” Do we, as we feast on the 4th Thursday of the month, even acknowledge this fact? Heck no! Our crops come from Costco!
This brings me back to part one of this post, and the capitalist lover that argued the holiday is really about celebrating “capitalist production.” Sadly, she is right on many levels. Our system does not celebrate giving, nor does it promote being thankful.
As those who are privileged by race, class, and other normative social positioning feast on this day, they often give thanks for their bounty. When I go to my mother’s for the holiday, her practice is to ask all in attendance to share something they are thankful for. Yet, rarely does this giving of thanks involve any historical awareness, let alone an analysis, of what the day stands for – both then and now.
According to Glen Ford,
“White America embraced Thanksgiving because a majority of that population glories in the fruits, if not the unpleasant details, of genocide and slavery and feels, on the whole, good about their heritage: a cornucopia of privilege and national power. Children are taught to identify with the good fortune of the Pilgrims. It does not much matter that the Native American and African holocausts that flowed from the feast at Plymouth are hidden from the children’s version of the story – kids learn soon enough that Indians were made scarce and Africans became enslaved. But they will also never forget the core message of the holiday: that the Pilgrims were good people, who could not have purposely set such evil in motion. Just as the first Thanksgivings marked the consolidation of the English toehold in what became the United States, the core ideological content of the holiday serves to validate all that has since occurred on these shores – a national consecration of the unspeakable, a balm and benediction for the victors, a blessing of the fruits of murder and kidnapping, and an implicit obligation to continue the seamless historical project in the present day.”
Thus, when we ‘give thanks’ for our bounty without also acknowledging at what costs this bounty has been made possible, we are accomplices to this “seamless historical project,” we, whether consciously or unconsciously, are giving thanks for genocide, for slavery, and for an imperial project that marches ceaselessly on.
Yet, as Robert Jensen of AlterNet laments, even radicals and liberals resist critiquing and/or rejecting the Thanksgiving holiday. Relating that the most comment argument went like this: “we can reject the culture’s self-congratulatory attempts to rewrite history…and come together on Thanksgiving to celebrate the love and connections among family and friends,” Jensen counters that:
“The argument that we can ignore the collective cultural definition of Thanksgiving and create our own meaning in private has always struck me as odd. This commitment to Thanksgiving puts these left/radical critics in the position of internalizing one of the central messages promoted by the ideologues of capitalism — that individual behavior in private is more important than collective action in public. The claim that through private action we can create our own reality is one of the key tenets of a predatory corporate capitalism that naturalizes unjust hierarchy, a part of the overall project of discouraging political struggle and encouraging us to retreat into a private realm where life is defined by consumption. “
What can we do instead? Well, my thoughts on that difficult question, with further reference to the wonderful 2007 piece by Jensen, well be posted in part 3 (either later today or early tomorrow, depending on how much grading I get done)…