It’s Time to Rethink Thanksgiving

I’m changing my mind about Thanksgiving. I’ve totally enjoyed the annual family-and-friends pig-out; the cooking, sometimes communal, as much as the overeating, which was guilt-free—based, as we learned in grade school, on a magical First Thanksgiving in 1621, featuring grateful Pilgrims and their guests, the Indians, sharing the harvest bounty of the land they now shared.

The First Thanksgiving | Creative Commons

But, really, how can it feel guilt-free? Apparently there was some kind of harvest meal that year, and some of the local people, the Wampanoags, were in attendance, but the Pilgrims never saw them as fellow people, and soon enough were robbing, fighting, capturing and enslaving or killing them. Given the whole long history of Europeans’ and then white Americans’ relations to the people who were here first—right down to a current Supreme Court case that has the potential to strip them of their status as nations in the US—it seems to me it would feel more natural to observe the fourth Thursday in November as a day of mourning for all the indigenous people we white people have killed or displaced or enslaved—not to mention lied to, cheated or outright robbed—to secure this land and its bounty for ourselves. Or, if mourning would be hypocritical (they weren’t our people, after all), maybe a day of atonement for those sins. Or, at the very least, a day of reckoning, of somber acknowledgement of what we have done and are still doing.

But too many white people seem unable even to admit, much less take responsibility for what we have done: Our horrendous and unrelenting violence and mendacity toward indigenous people and everyone else we deem to be nonwhite. All that we owe them in reparations for what we have not stopped doing yet. Instead, any attempt to redress the balance, any reparative policy is seen as discriminating against whites. If we don’t have it all, don’t own and control everything, don’t get all the advantages of white supremacy all the time, we throw a tantrum.

Why are so many white people always ready to feel victimized? It’s a hair-trigger over an absolute: we seem to believe that either we have it all or we lose it all; are replaced.

It’s completely crazy.

Until you realize that we replaced the people who were here when we arrived.

A few hundred years ago—basically as soon as we had ships capable of the voyages–white Western Europeans sailed out to claim all the land we could. Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the entire Western Hemisphere: all of the fully inhabited lands that we didn’t ourselves inhabit we took over or attempted to take over or, at least, to subvert or use to our advantage. That is astonishing. As of right. We assumed it was our right to rape and plunder and destroy entire civilizations because, we claimed, they were not civilizations; they were backward, inferior; nothing more than random collections of savages without, really, any culture at all—non-people, non-humans. And besides, they had stuff we wanted.

At first, we justified our takeovers by the fact that the people who lived in the lands we wanted weren’t Christian; eventually (of necessity, since so many were forcibly converted) this rationale was replaced by one based on a mere assertion: that they weren’t white, and we were. If you weren’t white, you were a non-person, with all that that implied about how you could be treated. Still implies today, in situations where white people think they can get away with it (as, alas, they all-too-frequently can).

The simple fact that we could defeat so many of those people we labeled nonwhite, that we could capture and enslave them or ship them off to slavery elsewhere—as Columbus at the very beginning did with the people he found living on islands in what were called the Indies—“proved” the superiority of our white Christian culture. (It’s surely significant that only in 1492, the year of Columbus’s first voyage, did Christian Spain, which provided his financial backing, win its final victory over the Muslims who had ruled its territory for centuries.)

But Western Hemisphere cultures were neither morally inferior to nor less complex than those of the Europeans. They had developed under different conditions—without the horse, without other draft animals, with more limited use of metal, and, due to geological barriers, in many cases without the kind of continual cross-cultural mixing and fertilization that for millennia had occurred on the Eurasian landmass, especially its western end.

Civilizations in the Western Hemisphere had slaves. Certainly slavery existed in the nations inhabiting the land that became the US. Except that among those nations, slaves could be adopted and raised as one of the tribe, or otherwise work or marry their way out of slavery, apparently even occasionally becoming chief. The form of slavery we whites practiced offered no such mitigation; it was a life—frequently a death—sentence.

The earliest English settlers in New England—including the Pilgrims and Puritans—shipped Wampanoags and others they defeated or captured to the Caribbean to be sold as slaves (as well as enslaving them at home for their own use as servants or laborers). Opportunities included skirmishes and two major wars. The second, King Philip’s War, was started by Metacom, the son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem who had provided lifesaving aid and instruction to the original Pilgrims and thus made possible that “first Thanksgiving.” When he became sachem Metacom, whose English name was Philip, wanted to drive the encroaching English out of his territory. When the English eventually defeated him they decapitated him, planting his head on a pole in Plymouth (where it stood for decades), and sold his nine-year old son (along with other males) into slavery in Barbados, one of the sugar-producing Caribbean islands that endured a particularly brutal, British-organized system of slave labor.

The natives weren’t savages. They had coherent cultures, with well-integrated belief, political and economic systems. (One reads that many white captives of native tribes didn’t want to be rescued.)

Their cultures were just different: on Cape Cod, where the Pilgrims landed, the people led a somewhat peripatetic life, moving inland for the winters and back to the shore in the summers (a lifestyle white people would take up some centuries later). They were decentralized tribes, a form of political organization that the Europeans no longer recognized as legitimate, although they themselves had for millennia been organized the same way. Indeed, the centralized nation-states not only of Spain but also of England, France and Portugal, the countries most involved in exploiting the Western Hemisphere, were relatively new phenomena.

The tribal nations and confederations encountered by the British had largely not had access to iron implements or weapons before European contact. Nowhere in the Western Hemisphere did people smelt iron. Nor, since there were no indigenous draft animals, did they use the wheel. There were no horses before the Spanish Conquistadores brought over the descendants of the horses that had made the tribes of the Central Asian steppes the greatest horsemen in the world. On our steppes, the descendants of those Spanish horses would make the North American Plains Indians, especially the Comanches, the greatest horsemen of our world.

As soon as they got their hands on new technologies, the tribal nations of North America adapted them to their needs and themselves to their use, but it was too late. For one thing, they were decimated by disease. The Wampanoags had already been almost wiped out before the Pilgrims arrived, an accident that gave the English room for their own settlement. European explorers, fishermen and traders, who had been plying the coasts for a century, had passed on their diseases along with their technology.

For another, what the British settlers wanted was all the land, fully occupied though it already was. And they would keep on coming until their sheer numbers gave them an overwhelming advantage.

In Mexico, Central and South America, the European invaders were Conquistadores, soldiers sent to conquer for the Spanish king, to deliver whatever forms of wealth they could find and plunder for the crown. They found gold and silver. They settled in the lands they invaded to administer the extraction of wealth and its conveyance to Spain.

The English came largely in private ventures, whether sponsored by syndicates of rich men in the South or as independent colonists, often religiously cohesive (Separatists [Pilgrims], Saints [Puritans], Quakers), in the North. Everyone was after land. In what became the US, much of the conquering was done by “settler colonialists.”

And of course, once the English settled here it became existential; their existence vs that of the people who already occupied the land. The English, and then the Americans, took the land because they could; because they had the technology; a more effective centralized, hierarchical military-political organization; the sheer numbers and the ruthless determination to annihilate or displace everyone who already lived here.

The triumphalist myth of the first Thanksgiving is just part of our winners’ after-the-fact coverup of a long and very sad story. It’s time we acknowledged that.


Some Thoughts about How White People Can Appropriately Refer to the People Who First Settled the Western Hemisphere: I like the Canadian terminology, “First Nations,” for accuracy, as opposed to the currently most acceptable US terms: “Native Americans” or “Indigenous Peoples.” I grew up using “American Indians” or just ”Indians.” The latter is no longer officially acceptable, but at least some people eligible for the other terms use it today in their writing. Whatever term is used, it refers to the people who arrived here first and established themselves throughout the Western Hemisphere long before any Europeans turned up; indeed, before there were Europeans. As far as we know, those original immigrants displaced no other peoples; the entire Western Hemisphere was unpeopled before they arrived.


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