When I was a schoolchild in the US a couple of short decades ago, I spent my time acquiring important life skills, ranging from how to fake a wrist fracture in order to obtain a purple cast, to how to craft a teepee replica out of a paper bag.
The latter art was perfected in accordance with the holiday of Thanksgiving, which arrived each November to great fanfare, and which, in addition to teepee replication, required my classmates and I to mass-produce turkey drawings, paper Pilgrim hats, and modified, feathered headdresses.
These materials were then incorporated into our reenactments of the “original” Thanksgiving feast: that mythologised, gastronomic encounter of 1621 between Pilgrims and Native Americans that now serves as a cornerstone of the fairytale version of US history.
On the surface, it may seem that there’s not much to criticise about a holiday based on gratitude and eating – especially when it’s accompanied by absurd spectacles like the presidential turkey pardon.
But a glance at the historical context of Thanksgiving reveals a thoroughly nauseating affair.
Land grabs and massacres
For starters, as University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen reminds us in a dispatch on the AlterNet website, the very term “thanksgiving” is saturated with disgrace.
By 1637, Jensen writes, Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop “was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children” – a bloody pattern that would “repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated”.
The work of historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, serves up plenty of additional food for thought, on why Thanksgiving perhaps shouldn’t inspire too many warm-and-fuzzy feelings.
In a 2015 paper on the indisputable genocide of Native Americans, Dunbar-Ortiz explained point blank that settler colonialism in general “requires a genocidal policy” and that “Euro-American colonialism, an aspect of the capitalist economic globalization, had from its beginnings a genocidal tendency.”
Among the many, obvious financial perks of land theft, Dunbar-Ortiz noted that the seizure of Native American trade routes also prompted acute shortages of food and other necessities, thereby “weaken[ing] populations and forc[ing] them into dependency on the colonisers, with European manufactured goods replacing indigenous ones.”
So much for bountiful harvests.
In his book, A People’s History of the United States, late historian Howard Zinn outlined other mechanisms of capitalist dispossession. An 1814 “treaty” with the Creek nation, for example, functioned by “splitting Indian from Indian, breaking up communal landholding, bribing some with land, leaving others out – introducing the competition and conniving that marked the spirit of Western capitalism.”
Furthermore, US “land grabs” of Native American territory “laid the basis for the cotton kingdom, the slave plantations.”
In short, with such a sinister past on their plate, it’s no wonder US mythmakers prefer to focus on pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce.
In recent remarks headlined “I am tired of being invisible to you all,” rural development economist and indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke summed up the logic underpinning the United States’ vigorous campaign to whitewash its criminal history vis-a-vis the Native Americans: “If you make the victim disappear, there is no crime.”
But how, exactly, to go about making victims disappear when US crimes are far from said and done with, and the ramifications of genocidal policy are ongoing?
There are, it seems, several possible approaches. Consider the fact that, as late as the 1970s, the forced sterilisation of Native American women in the US was not uncommon.
In other, even more literal instances of physical elimination, as CNN reported earlier this month, data from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows that “Native Americans are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group.”
Case in point: just a few days prior to the CNN report, a 14-year-old Native American boywas gunned down by a US law enforcement official on a reservation in the state of Wisconsin.
Last year, meanwhile, the Independent observed that, of 29 Native Americans killed by US police between 1 May 2014 and 31 October 2015, “27 of those deaths received no coverage” in the media.
Talk about disappearing acts.
As it turns out, many of those killed suffered from mental illness. And indeed, one can easily argue that the prevalence of mental health conditions among Native American groups isn’t enormously surprising in light of continuous antagonism by US authorities and society, often in the form of socioeconomic ostracisation and environmental destruction – not to mention food insecurity.
It’s pretty clear, then, that a lot of people in the United States won’t have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. But at least there’s Black Friday to look forward to: the ode to gross overconsumption that directly follows the supposed day of gratitude (and that has been known to result in news headlines like “Wal-Mart worker killed in Black Friday shopping stampede”).
To be sure, the Black Friday phenomenon only befits a nation built on predatory capitalism – where material excess is rendered sacred, obscene inequality is the name of the game, and communal bonds are systematically obliterated along with any remaining potential for human symbiosis with the physical environment.
In the end, you don’t need to gorge yourself on turkey and stuffing to see that the United States itself is positively sick.
Originally published on 2017-11-23
About the author: Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
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