Against Thanksgiving – for Indigenous People’s History

There was never a giving and there should be no thanks.

I imagine I have already lost some readers with the title – not that thinking people are going to disagree with what I have to say, but there is a conscious choice to ignore the history and politics of Thanksgiving, together with the history that surrounds it. Why? I don’t know – but rather then explore what the reasons might be, we need to just stop celebrating Thanksgiving. I am not against family meals. It is a wonderful thing to bring together friends and family – slow down, celebrate if you have the day off work – or just take the day off – and be together. But we must stop doing it in the name of Thanksgiving. It is truly perplexing that there is little to no public debate on this issue, even amongst those who identify as radical or progressive, with the huge exception of course being Native People in the US and Americas who protest and refuse Thanksgiving as a holiday. When arguments against celebrating Thanksgiving are presented, those making them are seen as extremists or some sort of political purists. Eyebrows get raised and heads shake back and forth as if one is arguing something drastically different than genocide and its explicit or de-facto celebration.

Thanksgiving is a myth. A myth told to intentionally hide the truth. Beginning even with the name itself – being grateful for something given – there was no giving. As for thanks expressed in history, I doubt that very much. There was a massive violent taking. That is the history of Europeans coming to the Americas. While perhaps there is some debate on what happened on one day in history, or a few days in history, if one tribe, or even, as some interpretations go, one small segment of one tribe, decided to share food with Europeans, that is in no way an argument that can undue the rest of history – much less rationalize a celebration.

“The whole country is a crime scene and should be marked with yellow tape,” argues Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the recently published An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Her book is a must read for all people. Once read, I am convinced there will be no more celebrations of Thanksgiving. Dunbar-Ortiz both tells the real history of what is called the United States, and does so in a way that compels the reader to think of the present day together with history and how it is made. It opens with the following passages:

“Under the crust of that portion of Earth called the United States of America – ‘from California … to the Gulf Stream waters’ – are interred the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of American Indians. They cry out for their stories to be heard through their descendents who carry the memories of how the country was founded and how it came to be as it is today.

It should not have happened that the great civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, the very evidence of the Western Hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set upon a path of greed and destruction. Choices were made that forged that path towards destruction of life itself – the moment in which we now live and die as our planet shrivels, over-heated. To learn and know this history is both a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendents of all parties.”

Last November in the Philadelphia area, Dunbar-Ortiz gave a talk on how Thanksgiving is “linked to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and to contemporary forms of racism.”  In her presentation, she challenged the founding myths of the United States and shows how policy against the Indigenous peoples was genocidal and imperialist—designed to crush the original inhabitants. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that “the colonial era never ended and reveals ways Native Americans have actively resisted expansion of the U.S. empire for centuries.”

“Indigenous peoples (known as First Nations) in Canada are taking the lead to stop the largest industrial project on Mother Earth: the Tar Sands Gigaproject” – (Indigenous Environmental Network)

Cyril Scott, the president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota made headlines all over the world, especially with radical activists and earth defenders, when he stated that they see the construction of the pipeline as an “act of war” and that people had already begun “resistance training”. The understanding of the earth and the need to defend it goes back hundreds of years as a part of indigenous traditions. Climate activists around the globe, and especially in North America, look to Native Peoples, both historically and contemporarily, in leading the struggle to defend the earth. As I write this over one hundred people have been arrested defending Burnaby Mountain, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, with First Nations committing to stand together with all who oppose the pipeline. This is incredibly important, not as a moral argument – that we need to learn about indigenous resistance and organizing for some sort of romantic historical remembering, but as a political argument about learning from history so as to move forward and defend the earth and recreate our relationships with one another, the land, and create new forms of governance based on the values of non-hierarchy, community and equality in the meantime. So how then, can one do this and celebrate Thanksgiving.

Celebrating Thanksgiving is a contradiction with looking to the history of indigenous struggle as something to learn from. One cannot have it both ways. There cannot be a celebration where the history of the massacre of a people is omitted and also a discussion of the inspiring forms of organization that some of those same people hold or held. It is time to end all Thanksgiving celebrations. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz speaks of how we might think of history, suggesting, “What’s the opposite of truth? We think immediately ‘the lie.’ But in Greek, the opposite of truth is forgetting. This is a very subtle thing. What is the action you take to tell the truth? It is un-forgetting. That is really meaningful to me. It’s not that the origin myth is a lie; it’s the process of forgetting that’s the real problem.” Let us remember history and fight together for a new future.

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