The idea of giving thanks is not such a terrible one; nor, in my opinion, are food drives or fingerpainted turkeys or having a long weekend to eat to my heart’s desire. What I find terrible, to put it lightly, is the national mythology of Thanksgiving as a celebration of good relations between pilgrims and American Indians rather than what it really is: the erasure of a violent, racist event that is one of many in the national history of genocide and land theft.
I don’t just mean that any collaboration between some American Indian tribes and English settlers was exploited by the latter’s expansionist intentions, although this is certainly true. Specifically, the origin of Thanksgiving is not what many of us have been told (or sold) growing up. After a period of growing tension between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pequot Indians in Mystic River, Connecticut, the former showed their true colors when they began enslaving Pequot tribe members. Two colonists were killed in this process, and when the Pequots refused to give up the perpetrators, the colonists decided it would be best to do away with the tribe altogether. After massacring 700 members of the Pequot tribe, including women, children and elders, on May 26, 1637, a thanksgiving feast was announced, and this festive post-massacre tradition spread throughout New England.
Thanksgiving, as we currently celebrate it, does not just ignore but actively denies this violent history.
Black Friday is the salt in the wound, turning Thanksgiving into a consumerist event in a capitalist economy that is not so favorable to American Indians. Counties on Native American reservations are some of the poorest in the country, and American Indians, at 27%, exceed the national poverty rate of 14.3%. This poverty is directly related to this former colonial land theft: settlers stole territory, developed it and reaped the profit through a capitalist system of the privatization of property and profit that simultaneously imposed on and was exclusionary towards American Indians. Expansion through this economic system relied on the exploitation of American Indians, and the living conditions of many American Indians today show the continuing material consequences thereof.
My point here is not that you shouldn’t cook a great meal with family or friends on the fourth Thursday of November if that’s what you really want to do. My point is that the act of remembering and recognizing what occurred, who it harmed and who it benefited is the least we can do to resist the oppressive whitewashing of Thanksgiving. It’s also important not to dismiss it merely as history; the past is ever present. As Andrea Perkins writes for People’s World, “we as Indigenous people remember this not as a day of thanks but as a day to remember the genocide and colonization of our people that continues even today. We are on the front lines facing destruction of the land, exploitation of our children, and our culture reduced to mascots.”
Yes, cultural appropriation is relevant here. As Rayna Green has pointed out,
“the living performance of ‘playing Indian’ by non-Indian peoples depends upon the physical and psychological removal, even the death, of real Indians. In that sense, the performance, purportedly often done out of a stated and implicit love for Indians, is really the observance of another well-known cultural phenomenon, ‘Indian hating,’ as most often expressed in another deadly performance genre called ‘genocide.’”
‘Playing Indian,’ then, assumes a lack of American Indians who can be Indians themselves, and this erasure, Andrea Smith argues, ideologically allows non-Native people to “become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous—land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture.” But a quick reminder: the population of American Indians was strategically and purposefully reduced by about 95% after European contact. Thus while cultural appropriation may work to justify this, colonial violence accomplished it.
Speaking of which, another erasure that occurs in American history is through the ‘wave theory’ of feminism, which posits white suffragettes in the 1920s as the nation’s first feminists. Many have argued that it would be historically accurate to refer to American Indian women, the first group to experience both racism and sexism in what would become the U.S., as the ‘first wave’ due to their resistance to patriarchal colonialism.
As we can see, history is far from a chronological collection of the facts, of ‘what happened.’ History is a carefully constructed political project, and for its authors to achieve their goals, certain experiences are necessarily made invisible. Recognizing these experiences and making them visible to both ourselves and each other, then, is also a political act. We can’t change what happened, but we can change what is remembered.
By Sophia Seawell, Contributor
Thanksgiving: A National Day of Mourning for Indians (statement from Wampanoag co-leaders of United American Indians of New England)