Here it is, that time of year (the fourth Thursday in November) when we are all beseeched to consider “what we are thankful for.” This invitation to a mass cultural ritual targets everyone regardless of race, creed or sex (or these days, gender). The conformity of thought it reinforces does not discriminate among such superficial characteristics; it goes way deeper. The fundamentals (literally, the foundational elements) of the “American” mind are laid each year at this time.
Those fundamentals hold that we are a strong, brave, resourceful people – whether by our evolved nature or by the grant of a deity – standing atop the shining hill of history, surveying our domain. This belief is adorned with different coats, some prettier than others, varying by class or other social division, but itself is unquestioned except on the margins of society.
Like many other beliefs, this one is false. It is far more accurate to describe our role simply as “occupier.” That is, what is called “the United States” is factually an active occupation. Those of us here who have no Native American heritage are engaging in ongoing acts of military, cultural and economic war not only against the people who lived here first but against the land itself. Occupying is inevitably destructive..
In terms of the Thanksgiving holiday, many scholars have brought to light over recent decades what Native Americans always knew and never forgot; namely, that the traditional story is not historically accurate and is cultural propaganda. (If you’re not in the know on the details yet, I urge you to educate yourself. I have listed some links at the end of this article.)
What happened in 1620, when some English people settled in what came to be known as Massachusetts, was an exercise in dispossession, massacre and ecocide. These have been the hallmarks of European contact with Native Americans and “the New World.” Over next three centuries what was accomplished was near total conquest of the people and the real estate.
These events are “in the past” only in the way that the formative experiences of childhood are in the past for every adult. That is, though they occurred years ago, they are present now today because they were the building blocks of our character. For individuals, they can include injuries sustained young and never properly mended or healed. For this nation, they consist of massacres and broken promises.
The “Indian Wars” never ended. Our occupation of the native land and our subjugation of its people is a current event. Right now, in November of 2017. On Thanksgiving.
So what are we supposed to do with this holiday? Give thanks for being the occupiers? Be grateful for the ongoing repression of millions of people and hundreds of cultures? All our material wealth is the product of the occupation; it is, in fact, ripped screaming from the occupied every day.
We could face this. We could start by recognizing the validity of our treaties with Native American tribes. These agreements remain on the books, were never nullified, and are still “real” according to our – the occupiers’ – own laws. Yes, this will probably mean “giving back land.” Yes, this will inconvenience a number of occupiers. If the formerly occupied are willing to offer mercy to such individuals on a case by case basis, that is their right, and it’s not for us to say (or even to ask for).
As former occupiers we can offer assistance to anyone made homeless, and that is one thing, but it is time for the military’s protection to be withdrawn from the settlers. Historically, the invasion was regularly carried out first by individual settlers who ignored ratified treaties and who called the cavalry in when the conflict escalated to violence (more often than not by the settlers themselves). Step-by-step in this way, the “frontier” was “advanced.” In Mexico, in what would become the southwestern United States, the Spanish pushed out the frontera, which is “boundary.”
Reversing this process – “settler colonialism”– is a necessary step at this point in time; our destructiveness must end as it is now threatening almost all life on the planet. Yes, I am aware that the logistics of such a situation seem impossible to imagine, at least from mainstream viewpoints. Facing us are other big questions, related: what about those occupiers whose descendants were forcibly brought here as slaves and who have never received their own reparation? We must stop business-as-usual and address these issues head-on with no delay.
So… can’t we just acknowledge all that and then celebrate Thanksgiving anyway, because we all really do have things to be thankful for? Like “family and friends”?
What is a friendship between two occupiers if each is empowering the other to keep occupying? Now, when all available evidence shows that the occupation is harming most living things including the occupier? When supporting the status quo is in fact suicidal? We say “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” but apparently friends do let friends participate in ecocide. Too often, “friends” are nothing more than people we set up to stand between ourselves and loneliness. In so doing we end up holding each other back, enforcing a lowest common denominator, enabling ignorance and stunted maturity.
What of “family”? Among the occupiers, it is an enforced relation, by definition inescapable as it is based on blood. These are the people you really have to stay with, regardless of how terrible they might be to you. Built-in punching bags for each other. Generally it’s a horror show, frankly.
This “family” as we speak of it is an intact relic from the Abrahamic religious complex in which kinship is biologically decided and legally bound within a male-dominated power structure. Those beliefs were a force for the self-colonization (domestication) that started thousands of years ago and set us on a path we have since beaten quite far from its source. Starting with the desertification of the Middle East through agriculture, we have ravaged and poisoned the earth from one end to the other, and in so doing made our relationships with one another toxic too.
Thanksgiving is truly communal in one very real sense, though: we manufacture it together, on the individual level, with personal intent. Yes, there is a powerful media machine that pumps up the holiday to make money, but the real power still lies in the masses. Our peer pressure on each other, through our social interactions, is still the dominant acculturating force, whether it’s online or IRL.
No, I am not thankful for the occupation of “America” (and I recognize that’s the occupier name but don’t know what else to use). The nominal benefits that accrue from my legal citizenship within it are limited and I find abhorrent the roles of abuser, tyrant and killer that are included with it.
Robert Jensen proposed a National Day of Atonement, to be marked with “self-reflective collective fasting” rather than huge meals and televised sports. Sounds great to me, especially since our arrival at such a place would necessarily be through camaraderie rather than top-down fiats.
In the best of all worlds, a sudden flash of collective awareness would spark spontaneous action in order to bend the arc of history to justice sooner rather than later. Such a thing is within the realm of possibility. How likely is it? Ultimately, such conjecture is probably fruitless unless you’re an odds-maker, but we cannot claim that it is impossible. This is not a call for “hope.” We would all be better off if we avoided the hopeful/hopeless trap and focused on practical realities; they are quite daunting on their own.
“There’s nothing we can do” is nihilism. I have wondered if such profound cynicism is a luxury that only occupiers can afford. How often is “We can’t” used when “We won’t” is truly the case?
On Thanksgiving, few people would literally say, “I give thanks for the illegal occupation of this land,” yet with our collective actions that is exactly the message we are sending every other day.
Facts about Thanksgiving:
- The Politics of Thanksgiving Day by William Loren Katz at the Howard Zinn Education Project
- Howard Zinn on Thanksgiving at Circle News
- Thanksgiving, a day of mourning for Native Americans by Alli Joseph at Salon
- Why I Hate Thanksgiving by Mitchel Cohen at Serendipity
- Celebrating the Genocide of Native Americans by Gilbert Mercier at Counterpunch
- ThanksGiving or ThanksTaking? by Thandisizwe Chimurenga at LA Watts Times
- Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving -and- No Thanks to Thanksgiving by Robert Jensen at Alternet
See also National Day of Mourning: Every year since 1970, United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning observance in Plymouth at noon on Thanksgiving Day