Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was blessed by those we hold up as our heroic Founding Fathers.
- Robert Jensen
You might think that Thanksgiving is a day for football, overeating, and falling asleep in the recliner after dinner…and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Frankly, that sounds pretty much like what my holiday holds for me, and you’ll certainly not hear me complaining. As long as the Dallas Cowboys lose, I’ll be a happy boy.
For some folks, though, Thanksgiving is anything BUT a day for giving thanks. Native Americans know all too well that this nation’s rise to greatness was built in large part on the wholesale theft of land and resources from indigenous peoples. Hey, it’s the one thing Americans are really GOOD at…and we’re also pretty good at exploiting and marginalizing those same indigenous peoples. While we’re busily patting ourselves on our collective backs for all that we have to be thankful for, it wouldn’t hurt to give some thought to how we arrived at this point. No, we may not be able to change history, but it sure would be nice if we could at least recognize the truth behind the holiday.
Collective guilt is not something that Americans are renowned for wallowing in. No, we tend to view material success as our birthright, and those who stand in our way as mere impediments to be crushed and shoved to the side. After all, to paraphrase Nikita Krushchev, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, eh? Still, would it kill us to stop for at least a second or two and acknowledge the reality behind how we got to where we are? That the holiday we are celebrating and our material success was built in large part on genocide and theft?
Indigenous people have offered such a model [a National Day of Atonement]; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas. But the thought of changing this white-supremacist holiday is hard to imagine, which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire.
It’s not news that all the world’s great powers achieved “greatness” through brutality on a grand scale. That those same societies are hesitant to highlight this barbarism also is predictable.
In the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin - the genocide of indigenous people - is of special importance today. It’s now routine - even among conservative commentators - to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured.
One vehicle for taming history is patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. We hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 after the Pilgrims’ first winter.
Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening land for the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 percent and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated.
They had what we wanted, and we had the means to take it from them. And so we did. It was as simple as that, and to the victors goes the right to write the history books. Most American know little and care less about what our forebears did to Native Americans. While I’m not advocating that we don sackcloth and ashes and engage in slef-flagellation in an effort to atone for the sins of our fathers, would it kill us to at least acknowledge the historical realities behind the holiday we are celebrating today? Yes, for the vast majority of us, Thanksgiving is merely a day off work- a chance to overeat, and an opportunity to watch two NFL games involving teams we really don’t care about while we fight Uncle Harold for the recliner. Anything resembling collective guilt or even the tacit recognition of historical reality is an inconvenience most of us can’t be bothered with…and if you watch the mainstream media today, you’ll hear nary a word about the true origins of Thanksgiving. And you though the Soviets were the experts on revisionist history….
As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president No. 26) defended whites’ expansion across the continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”
How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures held these views? Here’s how “respectable” politicians, pundits and professors play the game:
When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand-wringing about the younger generations’ lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history. But when one brings up facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable, suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, “Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?”
This off-and-on engagement with history isn’t of mere academic interest; as the dominant world power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of U.S. benevolence, making it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ as another benevolent action.
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.
No one is asking for or advocating for the return of lands and resources stolen so many years ago, and even if they were, no reasonable person would expect that to happen. Still, would it not be decent of us to at least recognize, if not honor, the historical reality behind the Thanksgiving holiday? After all, by ignoring the very real concerns of Native Americans, we ultimately do all Americans a disservice. Not that most of us care.