A genocidal smörgåsbord for Thanksgiving Day

Family feasting on Thanksgiving, with the results of genocide beneath the floorThanksgiving to me represents a day of opportunity — the opportunity to expose a history of genocide and white-supremacist domination of Native American and African peoples. First, let’s take a look at the history of Thanksgiving:

‘[What is erroneously considered to be] the first feast was not called a “Thanksgiving” at the time; no further integrated dining occasions were scheduled; and the first, official all-Pilgrim “Thanksgiving” had to wait until 1637, when the whites of New England celebrated the massacre of the Wampanoag’s southern neighbors, the Pequots. […]

Having subdued, intimidated or made mercenaries of most of the tribes of Massachusetts, the English turned their growing force southward, toward the rich Connecticut valley, the Pequot’s sphere of influence. At the point where the Mystic River meets the sea, the combined force of English and allied Indians bypassed the Pequot fort to attack and set ablaze a town full of women, children and old people.

William Bradford, the former Governor of Plymouth and one of the chroniclers of the 1621 feast, was also on hand for the great massacre of 1637:

‘Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.’

The rest of the white folks thought so, too. ‘This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots,’ read Governor John Winthrop’s proclamation. The authentic Thanksgiving Day was born.’

Glen Ford, “The End of American Thanksgivings


That is, Thanksgiving is not only a holiday that hides or ignores the Native American holocaust, but was actually created to celebrate it. The fact that millions of people celebrate such a holiday each year is thoroughly disturbing:

‘In recent years I have refused to participate in Thanksgiving Day meals, even with friends and family who share this critical analysis and reject the national mythology around manifest destiny. In bowing out of those gatherings, I would often tell folks that I hated Thanksgiving. I realize now that “hate” is the wrong word to describe my emotional reaction to the holiday. I am afraid of Thanksgiving. More accurately, I am afraid of what Thanksgiving tells us about both the dominant culture and much of the alleged counterculture.

Here’s what I think it tells us: As a society, the United States is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt. This is a society in which even progressive people routinely allow national and family traditions to trump fundamental human decency. It’s a society in which, in the privileged sectors, getting along and not causing trouble are often valued above honesty and accountability. Though it’s painful to consider, it’s possible that such a society is beyond redemption. Such a consideration becomes frightening when we recognize that all this goes on in the most affluent and militarily powerful country in the history of the world, but a country that is falling apart — an empire in decline.Thanksgiving/Genocide -- Which crime are you thankful for? Rape? Colonization? Torture? Theft of Land?

Thanksgiving should teach us all to be afraid.

Although it’s well known to anyone who wants to know, let me summarize the argument against Thanksgiving: European invaders exterminated nearly the entire indigenous population to create the United States. Without that holocaust, the United States as we know it would not exist. The United States celebrates a Thanksgiving Day holiday dominated not by atonement for that horrendous crime against humanity but by a falsified account of the “encounter” between Europeans and American Indians. When confronted with this, most people in the United States (outside of indigenous communities) ignore the history or attack those who make the argument. This is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

In left/radical circles, even though that basic critique is widely accepted, a relatively small number of people argue that we should renounce the holiday and refuse to celebrate it in any fashion. Most leftists who celebrate Thanksgiving claim that they can individually redefine the holiday in a politically progressive fashion in private, which is an illusory dodge: We don’t define holidays individually or privately — the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning. When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t pretend to redefine it in private. To pretend we can do that also is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

I press these points with no sense of moral superiority. For many years I didn’t give these questions a thought, and for some years after that I sat sullenly at Thanksgiving dinners, unwilling to raise my voice. For the past few years I’ve spent the day alone, which was less stressful for me personally (and, probably, less stressful for people around me) but had no political effect. This year I’ve avoided the issue by accepting a speaking invitation in Canada, taking myself out of the country on that day. But that feels like a cheap resolution, again with no political effect in the United States.

The next step for me is to seek creative ways to use the tension around this holiday for political purposes, to highlight the white-supremacist and predatory nature of the dominant culture, then and now. Is it possible to find a way to bring people together in public to contest the values of the dominant culture? How can those of us who want to reject that dominant culture meet our intellectual, political, and moral obligations? How can we act righteously without slipping into self-righteousness? What strategies create the most expansive space possible for honest engagement with others?

Along with allies in Austin, I’ve struggled with the question of how to create an alternative public event that could contribute to a more honest accounting of the American holocausts in the past (not only the indigenous genocide, but African slavery) and present (the murderous U.S. assault on the developing world, especially in the past six decades, in places such as Vietnam and Iraq).

Some have suggested an educational event, bringing in speakers to talk about those holocausts. Others have suggested a gathering focused on atonement. Should the event be more political or more spiritual? Perhaps some combination of methods and goals is possible.

However we decide to proceed, we can’t ignore the ugly ideological realities of the holiday. My fear of those realities is appropriate but facing reality need not leave us paralyzed by fear; instead it can help us understand the contours of the multiple crises — economic and ecological, political and cultural — that we face. The challenge is to channel our fear into action. I hope that next year I will find a way to take another step toward a more meaningful honoring of our intellectual, political, and moral obligations.

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, I’m eager to hear about the successful strategies of others. For such advice, I would be thankful.’

Robert Jensen, “How I Stopped Hating Thanksgiving and Learned to Be Afraid

Thanksgiving Day is not a day for celebration or rejoicing. Find another day for that. Thanksgiving is a fundamentally racist and genocidal holiday that we should utilize as a chance to inform people about white supremacy and the history of the colonization of the Americas.

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

U.S. soldiers posing over the mass grave at the Wounded Knee Massacre
U.S. soldiers posing over the mass grave at the Wounded Knee Massacre