JR'S Free Thought Pages
This year I've decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in the old fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my home for a glorious feast. After thanking God for our blessings I then killed them all and stole their land.
No Thanks to Thanksgiving
By Robert Jensen, AlterNet
One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.
In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; 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, Mass., one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.
Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.
That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.
But 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 all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.
One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hardy Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following 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 up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.
Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the nonwhite but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.
Slave owner and the first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."
Thomas Jefferson – another slave owner and president No. 3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."
As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites 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."
Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th."
How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? 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.
In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.
But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously, and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"
This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.
This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial 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 American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.
Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country."
Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.
History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.
Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. 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.
As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.
AlterNet originally ran this article on Thanksgiving 2005.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Radical Politics in the Prophetic Voice, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007).
Thanksgiving We Can Believe In
by Steve Hendricks November 27, 2008
Seven years before Tisquantum (Squanto, to most of us) helped the Pilgrims recover from their disastrous first winter in America; he was kidnapped by an English cod fisher and fur trader who was diversifying into the human trade. Tisquantum and other stock were shipped to Spain under hatch, a murderous passage, and most of the survivors were sold into slavery. Tisquantum was among the lucky, rescued by friars before he could be auctioned, though perhaps held a few years to ensure his salvation by Christ. We do not know how Tisquantum made his way to London and finagled a job as guide and interpreter on a ship bound for New England. But in 1619, four years after his abduction, he returned to America only to find his town of Patuxet in ruins and nearly all its 2,000 Wampanoags dead of European pox. When the Pilgrims arrived the following winter, they founded Plymouth on Patuxet's remains--a cruel symbol, that.
We do not hear much of this history on Thanksgiving. We hear instead that in the spring of 1621 Tisquantum taught the Pilgrims to grown corn and catch eel. We hear that come autumn, gratitude suffused the harvest feast, that beautiful gathering of men who had seen Shakespeare in his lifetime and men ignorant of paper but living lives of plenty. These things are indeed true, but a fuller truth is that Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims as much from fear as from charity and that alongside the goodwill at the first Thanksgiving were mutual mistrust and just-restrained hostility. The mistrust, on the Wampanoags' side at least, was well founded, as their destruction by colonial America soon proved.
America is not alone among nations in making mythology of history. Myth comforts. History, which is to say truth, instructs, often painfully. And it is a painful truth that the guns, germs, and steel of our forebears precipitated the great bloodletting that rid Indian Country of Indians and damned the few survivors to POW camps (now called reservations) where they remain the poorest, most diseased, and worst schooled among us. The link between our myth-making and their destitution is direct. For to forget that our nation virtually destroyed theirs is to absolve ourselves of a duty to make amends. We have been absolving ourselves for half a millennium now.
The consequences are written all over America's most populous reservations, where half the men and women have no work, half their children drop out of school, and still greater majorities, adult and adolescent, rot slowly from addiction to drink and drug. The reservation birthright is an eightfold risk, compared to other Americans, of dying of tuberculosis, a twofold risk of dying in infancy, and a three- or fourfold risk of dying by one's own hand while still a child. On reservations like South Dakota's Pine Ridge, a boy born in 2008 can expect just 48 years of life, a girl 52. Tell them they should give thanks on this day.
Indians have, of course, tried to better their lot. But they are cursed by a dependence on the kindness of strangers far surpassing that of others who were once written out of the American dream. Blacks and Latinos, say, make up 12 and 15 percent of America and are clustered powerfully in cities and regions like the South and Southwest. But Indians make up just 1 percent of America and are thinly scattered across its lands. They haven't the numbers to demand power. Nor have they the natural resources to build wealth, power's proxy. (Only a tiny handful of America's 562 tribes, to dispel another myth, enjoy casino or mineral riches.)
And so Indians are reduced to asking our leaders to do what is right because, quaintly, it is right, not because it will win them votes or dollars. Morality has always been a weak political card, but our nation has come to a rare moment when there is at last a chance--call it a hope--that the card might play. For the man just elected president, now of necessity coldly calculating what his America can and cannot achieve, was shaped among the colonized peoples of Hawaii, Indonesia, and Kenya and by a family sensitive to the costs of colonialism. In his broad mandate for change there will be room for a few deeds of mere moral, rather than electoral, worth. These are thin reeds against the winds of Realpolitik, which will howl at Mr. Obama to ignore--that is, condemn--America's Indians just as his recent predecessors have done. But forgive Indians and their friends if for now they cling to those hope-giving reeds.
What, specifically, Indians hope for is no mystery. They hope our new president will end their Eternal Depression (compared to which our Great Depression was a curio) with a New Deal: a CCC, a WPA, an NYA, and all the rest of FDR's alphabet-soup work programs, only under Indian control. They hope our new president will return a few of their stolen lands; for a start, the federal tracts in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakotas and seized by rankest theft, can be given back without disturbing a single acre owned by a white man. They hope our new president knows, or learns with grief, that tribal colleges and universities--born only a generation ago in trailer homes but already, in the greatest Indian victory since Little Bighorn, turning dropouts into graduates by the thousand--have never received even half the funds our niggardly Congress has authorized for them over the years. They hope our new president will raze the corrupt and soul-crushingly inefficient Bureau of Indian Affairs and erect in its place a truer friend of, by, and for Indians. And they hope our new president will free at last Leonard Peltier, the Mandela of Indian Country. Peltier has been imprisoned these 32 years for killing two FBI agents, an act he may or may not have done. What is certain is that he and his people returned the FBI's fire only after years of savage provocation, that his trial was one of the grossest railroadings in the history of American courts, and that our government's guilt far outstripped anything he stood accused of. The man has done time enough. So has Indian Country. Let us hope that may change.
Steve Hendricks is the author of The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. His website is SteveHendricks.org.