What Are We Really Giving Thanks For?

[This piece originally ran last year, but Renee has graciously permitted me to repost it again this year.—Liss]

by Shaker Renee, of Womanist Musings

Today families are going to gather across the nation to share a meal. (At least those who can afford to participate.) They will brave long lines, security at the airports, and lots of traffic to ensure that they are able to re-enact the national fable that we have come to understand as Thanksgiving Day. As the mashed potatoes and turkey are doled out, a few will stop to consider their bounty. Other than the 4th of July, could there be another day that is filled with more tradition, and pure Americana?

Hours of labour will have gone into preparing the feast. The stress of the travel will be forgotten as people begin to gorge themselves. It will be a day that will reach its climax when finally every stomach is filled beyond tolerance, and each face holds a smile. Satiated and relaxed, the family will retire to their respective couches to reflect upon a good time had by all.

Yes, it seems like a wonderful day of light hearted mirth and family bonding, until we begin to speak about the unmentionable; the suffering of the Indigenous community. The national myth includes happy compliant Native Americans, with no mention of the near genocide that occurred that makes them nearly invisible to this day in the social hierarchy.

We are further meant to believe that the pilgrims as people of God, held no prejudice, or ambition in their hearts. We are continually reminded of their persecution, as though that absolves them of the pleasure that they took in the near destruction of Native peoples. Only the truly God-fearing and tolerant kind, find happiness in small pox decimating a population.

John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague "miraculous." To a friend in England in 1634, he wrote:
"But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect."
This is not the only declaration that Winthrop would make. The thanksgiving that we partake in today is nothing more than the re-enactment of a celebration over the murder of over 700 Pequot people.
'Thanksgiving' did not begin as a great loving relationship between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, Pequot and Narragansett people. In fact, in October of 1621 when the 'pilgrim' survivors of their first winter in Turtle Island sat down to share the first unofficial 'Thanksgiving' meal, the Indians who were there were not even invited! There was no turkey, squash, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. A few days before this alleged feast took place, a company of 'pilgrims' led by Miles Standish actively sought the head of a local Indian leader, and an 11 foot high wall was erected around the entire Plymouth settlement for the very purpose of keeping Indians out! Officially, the holiday we know as 'Thanksgiving' actually came into existence in the year 1637. Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed this first official day of Thanksgiving and feasting to celebrate the return of the colony's men who had arrived safely from what is now Mystic, Connecticut. They had gone there to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children, and Mr. Winthrop decided to dedicate an official day of thanksgiving complete with a feast to 'give thanks' for their great 'victory'....
The unspoken thanks for the near-genocide of a people is what we will all fail to reflect upon. In this way we are able to maintain a colonization that has gone on since Plymouth Rock landed on the Indigenous Peoples.

The lie is maintained from generation to generation. We use children's cartoons to inform the young that they are entitled to this privilege born of bloodshed. Schools use thanksgiving pageants, where the children are dressed as Pilgrims and Indians to re-enforce the national myth.

Though the Indigenous community has complained, time and time again about the obvious appropriation of culture, many refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the offense. They hold tightly to the idea that they have the right to their traditions. (Warning: Comment section is extremely offensive.)

In the name of tradition the colonization, exploitation, and marginalization continues. One would believe that after the breaking of over 350 treaties, the trail of tears, and the slaughter of untold millions, that we could socially decide that a tradition that is based in this is worth changing.

It is the denial of racial privilege to believe that one group has the right to so forcefully express their power in this manner. Though the Indigenous community represents the vanquished historically speaking, they are still a vibrant part of our society. The annual celebration of such cruelty is macabre to say the least.

If we must have a day when we gather together, it should not be in the celebration of a near genocide. There is nothing that evokes warmth and love about an earth that is filled with the blood of so many innocent people.

Today as the turkey and the ham are passed around, perhaps instead of the laughter and camaraderie, a moment of silence could be devoted to the cultures that have been forcibly destroyed, the languages lost, and the untold suffering of millions. The Indigenous Peoples of the Americas deserve at least that. If we can pause on Remembrance Day for a war that lasted four years; perhaps we can take a moments pause for a colonization that has lasted centuries.

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