Last year, I watched one of the best challenges to the United States’ Thanksgiving holiday that I have ever seen. In this video, Sandy Grande, an activist, gave three ways to focus on the recent struggles of North American indigenous peoples. Here, I have embedded the video so that you can see her recommendations for yourself.
So, indeed it is that in North America, and specifically in the United States, land that is or was occupied by indigenous peoples is still being taken, and cultural genocide is still happening to them (yes, even as it is happening to others). It has been estimated that as many as 54 million North American indigenous peoples lost their lives as a result of their encounter with European invaders and settlers. As far as I am concerned, there is no amount of sitting down with family, friends, and being thankful that is going to change or erase the fact that here, on this continent, and in this country, the descendants of indigenous peoples are still in danger of losing their lives and their livelihoods due to the greed of some very powerful white men who have institutionalized and accelerated their love of money. Yet, a diversity of people celebrate and commemorate Thanksgiving as this were not happening. Many of those who dismiss this genocide are those who also escaped some form of persecution or dispossession of land, and that perplexes me. It is hard for me to understand how those who also experienced persecution or cultural annihilation on other continents and in other countries, or even in this country, can sit down for a celebratory dinner that is tied to the gradual extermination of indigenous people. Over the years, I have heard many justifications from those who gleefully look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday; they divorce themselves from the history of Thanksgiving and they reposition it as an apolitical, ahistorical event. And, they teach their children to do the same – to celebrate Thanksgiving as merely a day to be thankful. No amount of forgetting, erasing, whitewashing or flat-out denying it will change the fact that what has happened to the indigenous peoples of North America was genocide.
And, if you talk with many conscious indigenous peoples, versus the ones that have forgotten the whitewashing of their own people, they will tell you that that genocide is still happening today. As for those of us who are not directly affected by these acts, the last thing we should be doing is getting together on Thanksgiving without an accurate understanding of what has happened to indigenous tribes who once lived on the land on which we now call home. In other words, the systematic killing off of any group of people should never be something that we forget or celebrate. We must approach the day that is known as “Thanksgiving” with honesty and with the courage to call it for what it is: a reminder of a national disgrace.
Why do I say that what has happened to indigenous people of North America was a disgrace? Well, because that is what I feel about it, and I am entitled to express that feeling. I owe that to a concept that we value and that is called the “freedom of speech.” In addition, I believe that it is the responsibility of the American people to educate and enlighten ourselves on the role that the U.S. government continues to play in this country and beyond. We, as citizens and residents, do NOT have to agree or support anything and everything our government does. In fact, rarely do I meet anyone who goes along with all the laws, treaties, policies and ordinances that we are made to adhere to, and on a daily basis. That also means that we do not have to celebrate or participate in each and every holiday set forth by our government, many of which have been put in place to boost the economy. Everyone will not celebrate Thanksgiving, just like everyone will not celebrate Christmas, Easter, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and even Martin Luther King Jr. Day (yes, it is a national holiday whether your city, town, or employer gives you the day off). There are many holidays that I do not celebrate, and Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that I care not to celebrate because it is a holiday that was established at the deadly expense of indigenous people.
Everyone that I know kinda-sorta knows that, but, unfortunately, and much to my disappointment, their attitudes towards indigenous people is often very dismissive and apathetic. On the one hand, they acknowledge that a genocide took place; on the other hand, that does not seem to bother them one bit. Most of the people that I know who celebrate Thanksgiving say very little about the genocide of millions of indigenous North Americans; they act as if that genocide had to happen. And, many of the people that I know live on lands once occupied by whole groups of indigenous people. They seem to care less that land theft, and the forcible removal of people from those lands even happened, and that it was done to enrich other groups of people, such as the European settlers and colonizers. Some of this nations most revered peoples and families were the direct beneficiaries of the genocide of the native people of this land. Many of our nation’s richest families and tribes, so to speak, now live exclusively on lands formerly occupied by indigenous populations who were the first occupants of those lands. I was especially made aware of this fact when I lived in Massachusetts, and when I traveled to exclusive communities or properties in the mountains between Massachusetts and Vermont. I also felt this when I visited the wealthy resort islands off the coast of South Carolina. Those who benefited from their forefathers and foremothers violent actions against the indigenous peoples of the land; the ones who removed them from their lands and then constructed their homes and enterprises in their place cannot afford to remember the genocide of natives peoples; they cannot afford to admit that there is blood on their hands. So, the story about being thankful becomes an escape, a way to ignore that their family members did not earn their wealth or gain it legitimately: they pirated it. If these wealthy families and tribes were to admit that they had a part in the slaughter and enslavement of indigenous tribes, then – realistically – they would have to do something about it. And that amounts to giving up some of their wealth.
Let me make it plain on another level: urban and regional planners talk often about gentrification and eminent domain. And, they frequently do so in negative tones or connotations. For sure, there are some really good arguments against gentrification and eminent domain (and thus urban renewal) written by planners and architects, but, by and large, the talk or discourse of gentrification is also expressed as a given, or as something that must happen. On the contrary, I do not believe that gentrification must happen, rather, it happens because many urban and regional planners, city officials, neighborhood residents, and developers enable it to happen. In fact, some want it to happen; they acquiesce to its prevalence, although though they may speak about it as if they do not want it to happen. As far as urban planners and architects are concerned, it is their actions and governmental practices that reveal what they feel is important. And, often, as professional planners, their actions say that they believe in development at all costs; or, at least they work for people who do. Thus, if tearing down a historical neighborhood landmark or building on top of a cemetery is what the local government is willing to support, it is what those in their employ will be required to do. Those who worship and believe in the supremacy of the dollar will demonstrate that they will do just about anything to get it. They will show that profit is more important that human life and cultural preservation. Similarly, the establishment of “Thanksgiving” was set in motion with the same sort of beliefs and practices: and it was codified and institutionalized at the expense of the indigenous peoples of North America, whose lands were taken by force and to please the gods of profit. Today, many, like the Pilgrims, they “want their turkey and they want to eat it too.” And, they demonstrate to us that their beliefs about profits and progress supersede their beliefs about human life and our shared existence on planet Earth.
This is very sad to me, because I know a lot of people who claim to be “woke” and justice-loving people. I also know many who claim to have indigenous ancestry, especially many African-Americans. Yet, if asked or challenged about the history of Thanksgiving and its impact upon the indigenous peoples of North America, they are often silent or they look away. Thus, with their silence and their overt participation in the Thanksgiving holiday, despite their knowing the damage that it did to many tribes of indigenous peoples, they continue to legitimate the dominant narrative about “Thanksgiving” – the one that was constructed by our government to justify cultural genocide against native peoples in an effort to gain their land and its resources. Each year, since 1789, Thanksgiving is celebrated with an official government-sponsored narrative – which it is simply about getting together with family. And, each year the power and dominance of that narrative grows stronger and stronger. Never mind, that millions lost their lives in the wake of such thanksgivings. Who cares that America celebrates family and nation when it came into being at the genocide of one group (indigenous North American peoples) and the enslavement of others (indigenous African and Caribbean peoples forcibly taken from their lands)?
For me, nothing about the official Thanksgiving narrative is happy or worth a national day of thanks. And, I definitely support the recommendations of Sandy Grande, but, before we even get to her recommendations, I believe that the first step in supporting the struggles of indigenous peoples lies in the undoing of the official government-sponsored narrative. The first step in doing something in support of indigenous people is to stop legitimating or enabling the narrative by 1) recognizing the humanity and dignity of indigenous North American tribes by acknowledging and mourning their losses. The second thing that I believe that we need to do is to decrease the spending for the Thanksgiving holiday. Last year, it was estimated that the average American will spend about $160 on the Thanksgiving holiday, but overall, Americans spend MASSIVE amounts of money on and around the Thanksgiving holiday. That spending includes travel costs (air, fuel, and transportation overall); food costs; the costs of readying one’s home and decorating for the Christmas holiday – and Thanksgiving sets the stage for that holiday; restaurant dinners; holiday parties, etcetera, etcetera. All of this spending enables local, state, and federal governments to keep crafting narratives that will support development at all costs, which means that neighborhoods will be compromised by the development of high-end rental properties, school closures, and the gentrifying of urban areas. All of this will be done in the name of progress and profit. Never mind who gets hurt or pushed out in the process. This is why I say that an undoing of the narrative is a necessary first. Americans must begin to see that while you personally were not removed from your land, a day is coming when it might happen to you because governments specialize in land control and with land control comes the condemnation and destruction of minority cultures, heritages, and ultimately their lives.
On the other hand, I grew up in a household that celebrated Thanksgiving on a yearly basis. And, I grew up in a family that has indigenous ancestry. It was not until I became conscious of the counter narrative to the official Thanksgiving narrative that I grew up with that I began to distance myself from the observation of the Thanksgiving holiday. During the past five years or so, I have grown much more resistant to the idea of Thanksgiving. Do I get together with family to eat dinner? Sometimes, as I did last year when my mother was alone following her husband’s death. But, it is often not without expressing myself about the troubling history of Thanksgiving. I know that many will not do away with the official narrative that is told about Thanksgiving, but I do believe that there will be some who gradually chip away at the official narrative. There will be some who decide not to spend so much for the Thanksgiving holiday, which only enables the official narrative to gain more power and authority. And, I am most inspired by the fact that there are many who already stand in opposition against the whole idea of Thanksgiving because it is also a reminder of their own personal and cultural losses. Indigenous peoples are not the only ones who lost and who have to worry about their loss of land, culture, and heritage. But, it is their image that informs the backdrop of the Thanksgiving holiday. And, I think that that is something that we must acknowledge and remember.
On the other hand, I also know that there are many people who could care less, and will continue to support the official Thanksgiving narrative, even as their own people suffered under persecution of this government and others. Knowing this causes me to mourn, not celebrate, because as I see it, they are truly the ones that have lost. While they may have plenty on Thanksgiving Day, they have lost the ability to think of those who do not, and to consider that not that long ago, in the history of human peoples, there were those who were systematically killed by others for what they had and for who they were. That is a real tragedy to me. Because while now they may have plenty, there may come a day when the ones who give thanks may be in need. Perhaps it will be due to a wildfire; a hurricane; a tornado; a volcanic eruption; or tsunami. Or, it may be because their local government decides to condemn their land to build a sports stadium or a residential complex, or suburb/neighborhood that they could never afford to live in. One day it may happen to them, and I am pretty confident that the last thing that they would want to see is others giving thanks while they or their loved ones suffered.
Thanksgiving was established on the genocide of millions of indigenous people, and no amount of turkey or giving thanks for you and yours will change or make up for that. It took me more than half of my life to undo what I learned in childhood in terms of celebrating “Thanksgiving”, and I believe that with any luck, and with a little bit of education others will do the same. Therefore, in conclusion, my recommendation is this: on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps we should consider fasting, not eating to commemorate the fact that we still live in a world where the powers that be will not think twice about destroying whole groups of people to make a profit. And that is something that I will never take the time, the money, or the use of my energy to celebrate.
© 2019 annalise fonza, Ph.D.