As a child I understood how to give; I have forgotten this grace since I became civilized.
– Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux
I always experience mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. I appreciate that harvest festivals of gratitude go back to the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Hebrews and Egyptians and we know that Native Americans observed these harvest celebrations throughout the year. On the other hand, I’m mindful of Jon Stewart’s sardonic quip, “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my family over to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
Last Thanksgiving, members of my family paused at the graves of Native Americans in God’s Acre cemetery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s historic district. It seemed an appropriate spot to ponder the land grab, ethnic cleansing, and mass explusion of the “wild savage” Native-American Indian nations by the “civilized” European colonizers.
History records that after the English torched a Pequot village and killed men,women and children, the Protestant ultra fundamentalist, Cotton Mather, approvingly proclaimed,”It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.” And in his Thanksgiving sermon, delivered in Plymouth in 1623, Mather the Elder “gave thanks for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their primary benefactors.” Mather praised God for destroying “chiefly the young men and children…” Historian V.G. Kiernan recounts that in 1648 Dutch colonists initiated the practice of offering bounties for Delaware Indian scalps, women included.
Material gain always assumed a larger role than accorded in our national creation myths. Recall that Jamestown wasn’t founded by the English state, but at the behest of English financial speculators. And John Steele Gordon reminds us in his Empire of Wealth, “The early Puritan merchants would often write, at the head of their ledgers,’In the name of God and profits.’”
In any event, we know that in short order the New England Indians were decimated or sold into slavery by the Puritans. Toward that end, the English adopted terrorism as their favorite tactic against the Pequots in what is now Conneticut. Through a combination of violence and a smallpox epidemic, the Indian population of North America itself was reduced from 10 million (some recent estimates are considerably higher) to less than one million.
In retrospect, Sitting Bull, Geronimo and Crazy Horse embodied the territory’s fledgling “Department of Homeland Security.” As the t-shirt featuring a picture of Indian warriors proclaims, “Fighting Terrorism since 1492.” Surely, Native-Americans observing a traditional Thanksgiving would be like African-Americans celebrating Founder’s Day of the Ku Klux Klan. In that vein, while every school child hears the legend of the Pilgrims stepping ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, how many learn that in 1619, the first African captives were sold to North American colonists at Jamestown?
Note: Some whites always opposed both Indian genocide and slavery. Although largely absent from our history books, their heroic behavior against injustice is also part of America’s legacy, the part we should gratefully celebrate. (See Tim Wise, “Not Everyone Felt That Way,” 9/14/05, ZNet Commentary).
What about today? As I write this, the Iraq war continues as approach the 2,100 mark in returning coffins we’re discouraged from viewing. Again this year, loved ones will experience the pain of permanently empty places at Thanksgiving dinners across our land. While in Iraq there have been upwards of 35,000 funerals since the U.S. invasion in March, 2003. Although centuries apart, there’s more than a thread of continuity between the colonization of this country and the unspeakable violence visited on Iraqis.
“Welcome to Injun Country,” is the military’s greeting for new arrivals in Iraq. And this grotesque parallel was unwittingly highlighted by the Pentagon when it labeled an attack against Iraqi resistance fighters as “Operation Plymouth Rock.” Is expansion in service to an inexorable profit motive the common demoninator joining both eras? Indian land then, Iraqi oil now. The First Americans understood that Only after the last tree has been cut down; Only after the last fish has been caught; Only after the last river has been poisoned; Only then will you realize that money cannot be eaten. –Cree Indian Prophecy So yes, next Thursday I’ll delight in spending time with family and friends while acknowledging a multitude of blessings. But none of this will be remotely associated with a storybook “First Thanksgiving” and its possible manifestations in Iraq today. I’ll recall Nez Perce Chief Joseph’s eloquent plea, “I hope that no more groans of wounded men and women will ever go to the ear of the Great Spirit Chief above, and that all people may be one people.”
I’ll be grateful that more and more Americans oppose an immoral war based on a pack of lies; grateful the curtain is being lifted on the realities of corporate globalization; proud that in stark contrast to the government’s despicable betrayal, our citizens manifested such magnificent solidarity, compassion, and love toward Katrina’s victims.
Finally I’ll appreciate that recent events allow Americans to connect the dots among racism, war, social injustice and environmental degredation; grateful for what I sense is a rare defining moment for national renewal and a communion of commitment on behalf of fundamental social transformation. These are not insignificant gifts for which to offer a form of grace.
Gary Olson is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: [email protected]