Give thanks, but know our history

Illustration by: Jasmine Mochizuki / Visual Editor
Illustration by: Jasmine Mochizuki / Visual Editor

As families in America come together for Thanksgiving and feast on delicious, savory meals and give thanks to everything good that the world has given them, they don’t acknowledge where this holiday actually came from.

It has come to symbolize family togetherness, American pride, gratitude and appreciation for all the things that we have – but all on the bones of a shameful history, a legacy of genocide.

Origin of Thanksgiving

When a group of English colonists arrived to the Massachusetts Bay Colony they came upon a man named Squanto. Squanto had previously been taken as a slave to England and had made his way back to his native land the year before. But because of his knowledge of English he was able to communicate with the colonists. He taught them how to fish and grow corn as a sign of the treaty made between the colonists and the Wampanoag Nation.

Meanwhile, back in England word was spreading of the ample land and resources in the New World. Other British settlers arrived on new shores triggering the neighboring Pequot Nation’s fear. When the British began taking Pequot people as slaves they fought back because their nation had not signed a peace treaty with the colonists which inevitably started one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought. In the early hours of the morning the Pequot tribe gathered to celebrate the Green Corn Festival when Englishmen surrounded their camps killing unarmed men, women and children. Some were sold into slavery.

The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a “day of thanksgiving” for finally ridding their land of the savage heathens and a glorious feast ensued. The heads of Pequot Indians were kicked through the streets, including some of the friendly Wampanoag. (Sadly, their chief would not make it to the Thanksgiving sequel.) Massacres like this went on for days and feasts of Thanksgiving followed every one. George Washington later suggested that only one day be set aside to celebrate the racial genocide, and during the Civil War-era Abraham Lincoln made this day a federal holiday…. right before he sent troops against the Sioux in Minnesota.

Assistant professor in the American Indian Studies department Brian Burkhart explained that the tradition known as Thanksgiving, of giving thanks, has its roots in indigenous spirituality.

“Thanksgiving, that ceremony, is something that is fundamental to all native religious practice. It is the kind of core of what is done in a ceremony for native people at a very basic level,” Burkhart said.

We are told when to be nice

Thanksgiving, like all American holidays, is celebrated by the majority without any criticism. We live in a society where we are told what to feel, when to feel, how to feel. We are told when to be nice to one another, when to give charity, when to be compassionate.

But not all Americans are like that, you say. Of course not. If you happen to find yourself celebrating life, love and compassion regardless to the calendar, you are an anomaly to this system. We live in a society that is a dictatorship of customs, traditions and values.

For one day, many local organizations, churches and people decide that they are going to help the most vulnerable in society by sharing food and showing simple gratitude and compassion. The same humanitarian actions and family bonding exists during Christmas as well.

Last year during Thanksgiving, Indian Country Today Media Network published an interview between Gale Courey Toensing and Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Peters first and foremost debunked the accepted story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 as being a peaceful co-existence between native people and the colonizing Pilgrims.

Additionally, she explained that native people, such as the Wampanoag Nation, didn’t give thanks only once a year.

“We give thanks more than once a year in formal ceremony for different season, for the green corn thanksgiving, for the arrival of certain fish species, whales, the first snow, our new year in May,” she said in the interview.

All these holidays happens for one day, but then what? Usually, we go back to our daily routine, often times neglecting family members or our partner. When we see poor people, compassion is put on the shelf, as we don’t have the time, energy or even the desire to help those who are less fortunate.

That is, until the day comes when advertisers and the government tell us when we ought to care for other human beings or the exact date when we should take time to hang out with family members. Holidays, and Thanksgiving in particular, have become nothing more than capitalist rituals that benefit businesses and corporations in our society.

Holidays are a nice ritual but we shouldn’t rely on them to show compassion or affection. There should not be an alarm set when to be human; we should always be awake for these opportunities.

Black Friday is anti-family

While families come together at the dinner table, some have to take off early for the night to walk into the battlefield that is the Black Friday sales.

While some shop, others work. These workers wait for the stampede during their Black Friday work shift. Instantly, a federal holiday about gratitude turns into a game of an ultimate bargain. Giving thanks itself is a great thing to do, but this year, let’s also acknowledge what has been done, and be kind to the employees working on Black Friday, as many students, will be on shift.

But if Thanksgiving is supposed to be about being with family, then why does Black Friday interfere with this American tradition of family? Black Friday takes people away from what is said to be family time just to wait in ridiculous lines as consumers.

Normalizing genocide

The genocide of indigenous people has been normalized. And the most extreme forms of violence are the acts that are systematic, normal and calm, like the compartmentalized celebration of a holiday.

People of this country are constantly told the fairytale that the United States is always acting as a humanitarian nation. That could not be farther from the truth. Our nation’s history is marred with mass killings, oppression and the desire to expand at the expense of anyone who gets in our way.

As pointed out in an article by Andrea Perkins published in the People’s World, Thanksgiving as it is currently celebrated as a federal ahistorical holiday is a gruesome reminder of conquest.

“We as indigenous people remember this (Thanksgiving) not as a day of thanks but as a day to remember the genocide and colonization of our people that continues even today,” Perkins said.

So if you want to continue celebrating Thanksgiving, you are obligated to incorporate history and the complexity of colonization, genocide and occupation into your Thanksgiving celebration, as Burkhart suggests.

“I think it’s also necessary to acknowledge where it comes from, this ceremony of Thanksgiving,” Burkhart said. “But also to honor it in that way and by having that attitude of thankfulness of the most basic things that we have – our life, our health, our food, our family.”