Thanksgiving Not Joyous Festival for Many Native Americans

For descendants of the settlers, Thanksgiving is the holiday when most secular and faith-based folks set aside their philosophical differences and share family time around the table, focused on gratitude and appreciation for the good in life.

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  1. But that's not necessarily the case for descendants of the Native Americans whose generosity with provisions and farming tutorials saved the settlers' near-starving community. Having their ranks decimated by a microbes brought by earlier-landing European slave traders, the Wampanoag people knew hardship. Out of respect, they helped their neighbors that first winter. When the Pilgrims had a bountiful harvest the next year, they celebrated. Loudly. With gunpowder.

    Thinking their neighbors, with whom they shared a mutual protection agreement, were in trouble, 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe visited the community to provided support. When they arrived, the Pilgrims were celebrating a three to four day festival, based on the fall Hebrew harvest festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles. With 90 more mouths to feed, some additional hunting ensued.
  2. In 1970, the town of Plymouth, Mass. asked Frank James, member of the neighboring Wampanoag tribe on whose ancestral land the first Thanksgiving was held, to give "an appreciative and complimentary speech" at the 350th anniversary celebration of the event which is such a fundamental piece of the American nation's founding narrative. James agreed to do so.

    Once the event planners read James' intended speech, however, they replaced it with a PR friendly version that he refused to read. "It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People," James writes.
  3. James started United American Indians of New England and established Thanksgiving as the National Day of Mourning. His non-profit group fights racism against all minorities.
  4. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE
  5. As kids we put neon feathers on the orange turkeys we cut out from our hands and taped to the windows of our classrooms. I remember thinking it was awfully nice how kind we were to the Indians to feed them that big meal and, wow, they really needed to put some clothes on. 'My Country Tis of Thee' was sung right after we said the Pledge of Allegiance at Liberty Elementary School in Tillamook, Ore. From sea to shining sea!

    (Picture below appeared at Indian Country Today Media Network.)
  6. The belief that the settlers met an empty and untamed wildererness is a historical falsehood with dangerous political consequences. Author Alan Taylor on page 40 of his book American Colonies summarizes current population estimates and the history of disease in the pre-contact Americas. Estimates of the populations above the now Mexican border are set at 5 million. Hardly the "...few scattered tribes or feeble barbarians" described by nineteenth century historian George Bancroft.

    Having a blank slate of real estate, empty of claimants / inhabitants, and filled with raw natural resources makes colonization far more palatable than destroying a complex and diverse network of thousands-year-old cultures that had well-established traditions; a network of trade routes; and a long history of respectful stewardship with the land.
  7. The entanglement of the Christian religion and the nationalistic American narrative of Thanksgiving fail to create a historically accurate view of the context. John B Carpenter frames for a Christian audience the "The True Origins of Thanksgiving." Carpenter writes, "They came ashore in an area of native Americans that had just recently been nearly wiped out by disease, which meant for these newly arrived pioneers that there were cultivated fields and cleared land just sitting there ready for them to move into. They, of course, saw the hand of God in that."
  8. Enrolled Assiniboine tribal member Jonathan Garfield, living on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux reservation in Montana ,
    shares his thoughts on ancestors and traditions that have been brutalized by disease, broken treaties, forced relocations shares his view on the legacy brought to his people by the descendants of those Plymouth Pilgrims.
  9. NATIVE AMERICAN RESPONSE
  10. Native blogger, Jacqueline Keeler, brings a native sensibility to her celebration of Thanksgiving:

    "In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.

    "I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.

    "Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.

    "Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle.

    "And the healing can begin
    ."
  11. For those who want to acknowledge the concept of gratitude while also respecting today's vibrant and renewing Native American cultures, blogger Stevie Williams offers some inquiry-based options.
  12. #CTGR, #FirstThanksgivingTruths, #Thanksgiving, #FirstNations, colonization of America, Pilgrims, Wampanoag, Plymouth, Day of Mourning.
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