What if Cowboys and Aliens offers the same old message wrapped in a “new” alien package?

Orignally posted here at Ms. Magazine blog.

Given that the new film Cowboys and Aliens is the structural and symbolic equivalent of “Cowboys and Indians,” I went to see it in order to discover if this newfangled Western-Alien mash-up is marred by the same racial representations as the majority of its Western film predecessors. And yes, for the most part, it is.

The horrid title, which equates “alien” with “Indian,” was audibly laughed at in the theater. I heard similar chuckles when the film was discussed at Comic-Con, along with comments indicating the film would be a lark–an exciting and wacky new twist on two genres that have been done to death. My reaction to the title was viscerally different: In and of itself, to me it is incredibly problematic from a race perspective. To equate Native peoples with aliens is in keeping with the history of the word “alien,” which has been used to construct the Other, both human and extraterrestrial. Given that the term “illegal alien” is still widely used to refer to migrants and undocumented workers, the word “alien” is equated with both the racialized Other and baddies from other planets. As expected, then, the film did indeed further, rather than undercut, many of the racialized components of Western films–especially in relation to the following six tropes:

Us Verses Them

The film displaces Native people as “the enemy” of whites in the 19th century West, replacing them with aliens from another planet. Throughout, a refrain of “our people” echoes racist terminology such as “those people” or “your people”–phrases used to typically name whites as the good people and everyone else a dangerous Other. Though the film constructs the key enemy as outer space aliens, it still relies on a system of white people at the center–as “us.”

White Cowboys Are the Heroes

As argued by whiteness scholar Richard Dyer, in Western culture whites play predominant roles. As he writes, “At the level of representation…whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” This is apparent in the film in its representation of all the white characters as “just human” while the characters of color are carefully singled out as types: the hot Spanish wife, the exotic Ella (Olivia Wilde), the good Native American farmworker and so on. As Dyer argues,

This assumption that white people are just people, which is not far off saying that whites are people whereas other colors are something else, is endemic to white culture.

Further, as most of our ideas about Native cultures come from white culture, whites and white history are glorified. As Native scholar Elizabeth Bird argues, “These stories, at a mythic level, explain to Whites their right to be here and help deal with lingering guilt about the displacement of Native inhabitants.” In the film, whites are the “good cowboys” who make the defeat of the alien invaders possible. It is suggested that the earlier defeat of both Latinos and Natives are a good thing, for now good white cowboys are able to ward off yet another threat–“real” aliens from another planet.

Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is clearly a racist character, yet we are supposed to like him. As for the other lead white hero, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), at the outset of the film he has amnesia, and when asked “what do you know” he bluntly replies “English”–as if knowing this is enough. This was one of the few moments in the film that the audience responded with laughter, again revealing that joking about alien otherness (this time in relation to language) is seen as funny. The absence of Latinos in the film has not gone without comment. Being that the film is set in Arizona, the whiteness of the cast seems historically inaccurate, as the “Shouldn’t there have been more Latinos in the film?” discussion thread at IMDB addresses.

The Good Native

As scholars of Native American literature and film regularly note, Natives are often depicted as types: the Good Indian, the Bad Indian (or Savage), the Noble Warrior and so on. Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) is the film’s Good Native. He clearly loves Dolarhyde as a father and serves as the posse’s tracker (another stereotypical portrait) and defends Dolarhyde when their group meets up with a group of Apaches, telling them they need to open their hearts to Dolarhyde. Just before his death, he says to Dolarhyde, “I always dreamed of riding to battle with you,” to which Dolarhyde replies, “I always dreamed of having a son like you.” Here, the film attempts to ameliorate Dolarhyde’s racist ways in one tender moment, much in the same way that people who have racist histories deny their racism with the “but I have black friends” comment.

Natives as Savage Warriors

Contrasted to Nat’s Good Native character, the film gives us a group of Savage Warriors in the Apaches. When they are first represented, there is an overwhelming sound of their yelping–thus keeping with the tendency to animalize Native people in filmic depictions. The chief blames white people for the arrival of the evil aliens, but as the narrative doesn’t hold up this accusation, he becomes an unlikeable character who wrongly blames whites. In other words, the Natives are the racists, not the whites. The audience is encouraged to take Dolarhyde’s view that the chief is a fool who doesn’t understand battle tactics. When Dolarhyde tells him, “We can’t just run around hollering and shooting arrows at the damn thing,” the film draws on the images in Western films of Native peoples as savage but ultimately unsuccessful warriors. Here, the film asks the audience to side with Dolarhyde, agreeing that “white ways” of battle are better.

Though Dolarhyde, Jake and crew ultimately form mutual respect, and both groups are instrumental in the aliens’ defeat, the fact that the film never shows the Apaches again after the battle is in keeping with their framing as tangential–an undifferentiated tribe that is easily forgotten once the aliens are defeated. Further, the fact that a majority of Native peoples were peaceable groups is once again denied, cementing the representations of Natives as warriors.

Native Americans Live in the Past

The fact that the film closes back in the town of Absolution, Ariz., with no further mention of the Apache people accords with the tendency to depict Natives as a vanishing/dying race that exists only in the past. The future, according to the film, belongs to whites like Dolarhyde and Jake. This is further underscored by Nat’s death–the Good Native does not survive. Instead, Dolarhyde’s son Percy (Paul Dano), is set up at film’s end to carry on his father’s (white) legacy.

The Indian Princess

Though Ella (Olivia Wilde) is ultimately revealed not to be a Native Woman, the trailers and film lead the audience to believe she is–especially through comments such as “they took my people, too” and “they killed all my people.” She accords with the Indian Princess model of the exotic, otherized women who is rendered likeable and heroic through her associations with a white hero. Jake, in defending her and insisting she is not the “whore” others call her, frames her as a warrior princess. She is begrudgingly allowed to join the posse with the line, “We got a kid and a dog, why not a woman?”–a line which both infantilizes and animalizes her. Granted, she is given much more of an action role than females often are in such films, but like Nat she eventually dies. Only white guys get to save the day and live.

While this Western may not be as odious as many others in its representation of white/Native relations–and actually allows for a somewhat positive depiction of Native peoples–it nevertheless still accords with dominant racial ideologies in which white males are center and others are peripheral. As such, it can be viewed as an “old movie,” which media scholar Stuart Hall defines as “synonymous with the demonstration of the moral, social and physical mastery of the colonizers over the colonized.” Though the main enemy in the film is the “alien race,” the white colonizers are shown as superior to the colonized Natives. Ultimately, the film frames “us” as white cowboys and “them” as alien and Native

What if we refused to feast on the sugar-coated version of Thanksgiving? (Reconsidering Thanksgiving, part 3)

Here is part 3:

For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.

Yet, even though many do not intend to celebrate the historical underpinnings of the holiday, they nevertheless allow patriotic, racist lies to continue UNLESS they at least acknowledge the true history of the genocide upon which this nation was ‘founded.’

Thus, while I often gather with extended family on this day, I do not call it ‘Thanksgiving’ any longer – even the name is abhorrent to me now. For lack of a better term, I call it a ‘holiday,’ as it is, for those of us lucky enough to have jobs (and jobs where we get such days off) a holiday. However, ever since my kids have been old enough to talk, we have spent the day discussing the true history of Thanksgiving and the fact that this country’s bounty comes at the expense other peoples and nations – as it always has done. This is not enough, and this pains me. Yet, ‘traditions’ are hard to break – and perhaps more so when one has young children in the house.

I lived out of the country for many years, and thus Thanksgiving was a non-issue. However, when I returned to the US, it soon became a thorn in my side – as soon as, in fact, my children entered pre-school. The way our education system teaches this holiday is detestable. The books and songs, the color in a Pilgrim/Native American handouts, the activities of making Pilgrim/Native American headwear, the potluck feasts — all of these work to perpetuate the historical lie that we should be “giving thanks” for our history. 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 Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving (as noted by Renee at Womanist Musings) as well as via virtually all pre-college curriculum.

As an aside, I offer each year to visit my children’s classrooms to teach a non-sweetened history of Thanksgiving and/or to talk about Native American history – my offer has yet to be accepted. I make a similar offer when my kids study the California missions. Again, no teachers have taken me up on this. This refusal to incorporate the true history, the ugly, reality version of history, helps to, as Robert Jensen argues, maintain our tooth-decayingly sweet American mythos:

“Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology.

History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.”

In Jensen’s framing, learning and spreading the truth of history does not absolve us, but at least it obfuscates the trend we are in now – that of genocide, warfare, enslavement, and empire repeating itself.

As a reminder of this endless repetition, in a fairly recent Thanksgiving travesty, GW Bush showed up in Iraq for a photo job, fake turkey in hand. In Mitchel Cohen’s estimation, “in one fell swoop, the new Conquistador had tied to history’s bloody bough the 511-year-old conquest of the ‘New World’ ­ whose legions smote the indigenous population in the name of Christ ­ with last year’s bombardment and invasion of Iraq and the torture-detentions of prisoners of war at U.S. military bases.”

The linkages between our present acts and past acts convey that we are still a country guided by the white supremacist notion of manifest destiny, and whether those in power are perpetuating the killing of Native Americans or Iraqi civilians, their aims and motivations are similar: power and greed. GW Bush is merely a modern day pilgrim, a born again one, who similarly uses his religion to justify persecution.

The occupation of Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, the rampant levels of human enslavement globally, all of these are history repeating, in endless iteration, the mistakes we have yet to learn from…

So, what would a socially just response to Thanksgiving be? Well, Jensen argues for “a truth-and-reconciliation process that would not only correct the historical record but also redistribute land and wealth.” Yet, he also accedes that given our immersion in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, that this is unlikely. 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 speak truth to power and his writing suggests we must do this with everyone we meet – whether it is the well-wisher at the grocery store or to 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.” This part of his answer is something I think those of us who would like to resist the historical grounding of the holiday are able to do, in ways both small and large. We can speak the truth, write the truth, whether amongst our own friends and family or via more public venues.

And, as PetPluto over at Art at the Auction in the post “Why I like Thanksgiving” muses, we can attempt to separate the historical origins of the day to how we personally celebrate it. PetPluto uses the analogy of marriage, and how it has changed as an institution to frame this argument:

“I think we should all be aware that the modern marriage is a relatively new invention, and that sometimes what came before was less than pleasant. But since the modern marriage is, generally speaking, a different animal all together, there is the ability to celebrate it when two people decide that they do want to tie that knot. Same thing with Thanksgiving. The modern Thanksgiving is less about the historical event of breaking bread between Native Americans and Pilgrims and more about family.”

I agree with this sentiment, but, as with the institution of marriage, I am growing more and more critical of the supposed ‘good sides’ of these societal traditions. Perhaps I am growing more radical as I age…

PetPluto further suggests that the historical remembering is a job for us as a nation, rather than a burden that should be taken on by the holiday itself: “It is our job to remember how we got here as a nation – both the good and the bad. But it is Thanksgiving’s job, and holidays like it, to remind us that what we get in return for being part of a family – blood or made –  for being thankful and being giving…”

I like this idea, but unlike PetPluto, I am not able to put aside “liberal guilt about this one day.” Yet, as I learned from Peggy McIntosh, guilt does nothing to change things. Guilt is a pointless emotion unless it spurs one to take action. So, what will I do with my feminist/progressive guilt?  Well, for this year I am writing about it (and in previous years I have taught about it), which certainly isn’t much. But, for next year, who knows… As my family and I gather tomorrow and discuss the non-saccharine version of history, I will ask two people who always give me very honest advice how we should change our observation of this day – my nine year old daughter and my twelve year old son.

As we work through this conundrum together, I hope to instill in my kids a yearning to know the real history of our world and, moreover, to yearn to change the world so that holidays CAN be just – so that they can be celebrated without guilt. Yet, I will keep Jensen’s reminder that “We don’t define holidays individually — the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning” in mind. For, if this reconsideration of holidays is not done by the wider culture, not too much will be gained.

However, I disagree with Jensen’s contention that “When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t pretend to redefine it in private. One either accepts the dominant definition or resists it, publicly and privately.” I don’t agree with this either/or construction. My family’s private redefinition is not “pretend,” it is the beginning of resistance – a resistance that, if enough people start to similarly resist, has the potential to create a cultural shift.

I do not mean to suggest that this would be enough to ‘make up’ for the genocide of indigenous people that founded this nation. Nothing would be enough. Yet, an attitude of rectifying the wrongs of the past, of refusing to swallow the sugar-coated version of history, of not blindly ‘giving thanks’ for one’s own privileges would at least be a start.

In an earlier piece, Jensen reasoned that “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.”

This too is something those of us who are reconsidering the holiday can do – we can endeavor to be aware of how the holiday affects not only our individual psyches, but the collective psyche of our culture. And, while arguments may be had over who does the cooking and who sits and watches football, over the patriarchal carving ritual where men are honored (and often photographed) for their knife skills while female’s hours of work in the kitchen oft are expected rather than lionized, while many will comment on their ‘overweight’ bodies, what most will NOT do is consider the constricting effects of this celebration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy on their minds…

At my house, we will certainly consider the “constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.” We will also 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.

***

Addendum: Before a final read through for errors, I took a wee break and went to catch up on some much needed blog reading. At Don’t Do That, I came across this great link to a piece on “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving.’” Check it out!

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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What if Thanksgiving was not about happy Pilgrims sharing turkey with industrious Natives, but about giving thanks for a successful massacre? (Reconsidering Thanksgiving, Part 2)

Here is Part 2 of my Thanksgiving posts from 2008:

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:

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)…

Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 11:51 am  Comments (3)  
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What if we refused to feast on the sugar-coated version of Thanksgiving? (Reconsidering Thanksgiving, part 3)

For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.

Yet, even though many do not intend to celebrate the historical underpinnings of the holiday, they nevertheless allow patriotic, racist lies to continue UNLESS they at least acknowledge the true history of the genocide upon which this nation was ‘founded.’

Thus, while I often gather with extended family on this day, I do not call it ‘Thanksgiving’ any longer – even the name is abhorrent to me now. For lack of a better term, I call it a ‘holiday,’ as it is, for those of us lucky enough to have jobs (and jobs where we get such days off) a holiday. However, ever since my kids have been old enough to talk, we have spent the day discussing the true history of Thanksgiving and the fact that this country’s bounty comes at the expense other peoples and nations – as it always has done. This is not enough, and this pains me. Yet, ‘traditions’ are hard to break – and perhaps more so when one has young children in the house.

I lived out of the country for many years, and thus Thanksgiving was a non-issue. However, when I returned to the US, it soon became a thorn in my side – as soon as, in fact, my children entered pre-school. The way our education system teaches this holiday is detestable. The books and songs, the color in a Pilgrim/Native American handouts, the activities of making Pilgrim/Native American headwear, the potluck feasts — all of these work to perpetuate the historical lie that we should be “giving thanks” for our history. 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 Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving (as noted by Renee at Womanist Musings) as well as via virtually all pre-college curriculum.

As an aside, I offer each year to visit my children’s classrooms to teach a non-sweetened history of Thanksgiving and/or to talk about Native American history – my offer has yet to be accepted. I make a similar offer when my kids study the California missions. Again, no teachers have taken me up on this. This refusal to incorporate the true history, the ugly, reality version of history, helps to, as Robert Jensen argues, maintain our tooth-decayingly sweet American mythos:

“Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology.

History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.”

In Jensen’s framing, learning and spreading the truth of history does not absolve us, but at least it obfuscates the trend we are in now – that of genocide, warfare, enslavement, and empire repeating itself.

As a reminder of this endless repetition, in a fairly recent Thanksgiving travesty, GW Bush showed up in Iraq for a photo job, fake turkey in hand. In Mitchel Cohen’s estimation, “in one fell swoop, the new Conquistador had tied to history’s bloody bough the 511-year-old conquest of the ‘New World’ ­ whose legions smote the indigenous population in the name of Christ ­ with last year’s bombardment and invasion of Iraq and the torture-detentions of prisoners of war at U.S. military bases.”

The linkages between our present acts and past acts convey that we are still a country guided by the white supremacist notion of manifest destiny, and whether those in power are perpetuating the killing of Native Americans or Iraqi civilians, their aims and motivations are similar: power and greed. GW Bush is merely a modern day pilgrim, a born again one, who similarly uses his religion to justify persecution.

The occupation of Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, the rampant levels of human enslavement globally, all of these are history repeating, in endless iteration, the mistakes we have yet to learn from…

So, what would a socially just response to Thanksgiving be? Well, Jensen argues for “a truth-and-reconciliation process that would not only correct the historical record but also redistribute land and wealth.” Yet, he also accedes that given our immersion in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, that this is unlikely. 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 speak truth to power and his writing suggests we must do this with everyone we meet – whether it is the well-wisher at the grocery store or to 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.” This part of his answer is something I think those of us who would like to resist the historical grounding of the holiday are able to do, in ways both small and large. We can speak the truth, write the truth, whether amongst our own friends and family or via more public venues.

And, as PetPluto over at Art at the Auction in the post “Why I like Thanksgiving” muses, we can attempt to separate the historical origins of the day to how we personally celebrate it. PetPluto uses the analogy of marriage, and how it has changed as an institution to frame this argument:

“I think we should all be aware that the modern marriage is a relatively new invention, and that sometimes what came before was less than pleasant. But since the modern marriage is, generally speaking, a different animal all together, there is the ability to celebrate it when two people decide that they do want to tie that knot. Same thing with Thanksgiving. The modern Thanksgiving is less about the historical event of breaking bread between Native Americans and Pilgrims and more about family.”

I agree with this sentiment, but, as with the institution of marriage, I am growing more and more critical of the supposed ‘good sides’ of these societal traditions. Perhaps I am growing more radical as I age…

PetPluto further suggests that the historical remembering is a job for us as a nation, rather than a burden that should be taken on by the holiday itself: “It is our job to remember how we got here as a nation – both the good and the bad. But it is Thanksgiving’s job, and holidays like it, to remind us that what we get in return for being part of a family – blood or made –  for being thankful and being giving…”

I like this idea, but unlike PetPluto, I am not able to put aside “liberal guilt about this one day.” Yet, as I learned from Peggy McIntosh, guilt does nothing to change things. Guilt is a pointless emotion unless it spurs one to take action. So, what will I do with my feminist/progressive guilt?  Well, for this year I am writing about it (and in previous years I have taught about it), which certainly isn’t much. But, for next year, who knows… As my family and I gather tomorrow and discuss the non-saccharine version of history, I will ask two people who always give me very honest advice how we should change our observation of this day – my nine year old daughter and my twelve year old son.

As we work through this conundrum together, I hope to instill in my kids a yearning to know the real history of our world and, moreover, to yearn to change the world so that holidays CAN be just – so that they can be celebrated without guilt. Yet, I will keep Jensen’s reminder that “We don’t define holidays individually — the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning” in mind. For, if this reconsideration of holidays is not done by the wider culture, not too much will be gained.

However, I disagree with Jensen’s contention that “When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t pretend to redefine it in private. One either accepts the dominant definition or resists it, publicly and privately.” I don’t agree with this either/or construction. My family’s private redefinition is not “pretend,” it is the beginning of resistance – a resistance that, if enough people start to similarly resist, has the potential to create a cultural shift.

I do not mean to suggest that this would be enough to ‘make up’ for the genocide of indigenous people that founded this nation. Nothing would be enough. Yet, an attitude of rectifying the wrongs of the past, of refusing to swallow the sugar-coated version of history, of not blindly ‘giving thanks’ for one’s own privileges would at least be a start.

In an earlier piece, Jensen reasoned that “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.”

This too is something those of us who are reconsidering the holiday can do – we can endeavor to be aware of how the holiday affects not only our individual psyches, but the collective psyche of our culture. And, while arguments may be had over who does the cooking and who sits and watches football, over the patriarchal carving ritual where men are honored (and often photographed) for their knife skills while female’s hours of work in the kitchen oft are expected rather than lionized, while many will comment on their ‘overweight’ bodies, what most will NOT do is consider the constricting effects of this celebration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy on their minds…

At my house, we will certainly consider the “constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.” We will also 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.

***

Addendum: Before a final read through for errors, I took a wee break and went to catch up on some much needed blog reading. At Don’t Do That, I came across this great link to a piece on “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving.’” Check it out!

What if Thanksgiving was not about happy Pilgrims sharing turkey with industrious Natives, but about giving thanks for a successful massacre? (Reconsidering Thanksgiving, Part 2)

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:

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)…

What if “Columbus Day” was given the more accurate name “Celebrate Genocide Day”?

 

Today is “Columbus Day,’ a day that has been celebrated in various ways since at least 1792 and was declared a federal holiday by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934. Currently, elementary schools around the nation combine the ‘holiday’ with learning units about Columbus and his “discovery.” The ways in which this portion of history is taught consists of a massive lie.

To start with, most history books claim Columbus “discovered” America. Well, forgive me  for asking, but when there are already anywhere form 10 to 45 million inhabitants living on a land mass, why does one conqueror’s greed induced voyage equal “discovery”? (Not to mention Columbus was lost and thought he was in Cuba when he first landed in the Caribbean and thought he was in India when he landed in North America.)

Teaching children Columbus “discovered” American obliterates the history of the indigenous people’s of this continent, it ignores the genocide that ensued, and it suggests that greed-driven imperialism is something to be celebrated.  It equates being a “hero” with being racist, violent, power-hungry, and arrogant. Woo-hoo.

Many websites offer teachers lesson plans to help kids “celebrate” the wonderful imperialist genocide Columbus’ “discovery” made possible. You can make tiny egg cups to represent the ships. Neat! You can make your own “discovery map.” (Do teachers encourage children to note the numbers of indigenous people massacred at each of Columbus’ ‘discoveries’?) Or, you can download pictures to color. (I wonder if these include native people’s being eaten alive by dogs – a popular way to ‘kill heathens’ by our hero.)

What if students learned a less glorified version of the not-so-great CC? Perhaps they might benefit from knowing some of the following:

  • One of CC’s earliest boasts after encountering the peaceful Arawaks was “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Zinn, 1)
  • Columbus was on his ‘discovery mission’ for gold and power – he was a power hungry zealot – so greedy in fact that he denied the promised yearly pensions to some of his crew and kept all profits for himself (Zinn, 3)
  • At the time of Columbus’ quest for gold, power, and conquest, indigenous peoples numbered in the multi-millions in the Americas (Zinn puts the number at 25 million; Gunn Allen notes the number was likely between 45 million and 20 million and further points out the US government cites the pre-contact number at 450,000)
  • Indigenous people’s were not “primitive” but advanced agriculturally and technologically with complex societal systems (so advanced in fact that the notion of democracy was stolen from the Iroquois)
  • The majority of indigenous people were not war-like but peaceful and did not have a concept of private ownership – hence the term “Indian Giver” – which became a pejorative rather than a compliment in our ownership crazy society
  • Many indigenous societies had far more advanced sharing of power between the sexes/genders – or, as Zinn puts it, “the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent” (20)
  • “Contact” with Columbus and the conquerors that followed resulted not only in mass genocide, but continues to have negative effects on the small percentage of remaining indigenous peoples. For example, in the US, 25% of indigenous women and 10% of men have been sterilized without consent, infant mortality and unemployment are off the charts, and many existing tribes face extinction – hundreds of tribes have already become extinct in the last half century (Gunn Allen, 63)

These widely unknown facts (that are certainly not part of most public schools’ curriculum) are vitally important. As Zinn writes, “historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” (8). The distortions surrounding Columbus serve to bring about “the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” (Zinn, 9) – an acceptance the USA is practicing today with its imperialist occupation of Iraq. This approach to history, in which the conquerors and corrupt governments shape both how people view the past and how they interpret the present, consists of a massive propagandist campaign to justify greed and power.

In terms of the way Columbus is historically represented, the whole “discovery narrative” not only problematically glorifies (and erases) genocide, but it also passes off lies as truth. Students are led to believe that Columbus came upon some vast and nearly wilderness, when in fact many places were as densely populated (and ‘civilized’) as areas of Europe (Zinn, 21). More prosaically, many people often mistakenly believe Columbus actually set foot on US soil (he never did). Moreover, US inhabitants are encouraged to lionize the man who not only precipitated mass murder of indigenous people’s, but also brought slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. Even ‘revisionist history’ fails to condemn Columbus, arguing he needs to be read in the context of his times. For example James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, refers to him as “our first American hero.”  Well, if he is a hero, I certainly don’t want to be one of those, nor do I want to encourage my children, or my students, to look up to this version of heroism.

If you ask me, Columbus Day should be voided from the Federal Holiday calendar. Instead, perhaps we should institute an “Indigenous People’s Day” or a “Native American Day” to celebrate the true discovers of this continent. Columbus was an arrogant asshole, a murderous bigot, the cause of history’s largest and longest genocide. Who the hell wants to celebrate that?

Works cited:

Gunn Allen, Paula. “Angry Women are Building” in Reconstructing Gender. Ed. Estelle Disch. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006) 63-67.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).

For further reading:

Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminism in American Indian Traditions.

Jaimes, M. Annette. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance.

La Duke, Winona. The Winona la Duke Reader.

Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.

 

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