The Nation is an American biweekly magazine that covers political and cultural news, opinion, and analysis from a ‘progressive’ perspective. With current articles like It’s Time for American Healthcare Workers to Stand in Solidarity With Gaza and “Made in America” Never Meant More Ethical, well, you get the picture. And now, just in time for Thanksgiving, they have this gem:
Sean Sherman argues that we need to decolonize Thanksgiving, while Chase Iron Eyes calls for replacing Thanksgiving with a “Truthsgiving.”
I am a proud member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My early memories of Thanksgiving are akin to those of most Americans—meat-and-potatoes dishes inspired by Eurocentric 1960s-era cookbooks.
For many Americans, the image of Thanksgiving is one of supposed unity: the gathering of “Pilgrims and Indians” in a harmonious feast. But this version obscures the harsh truth, one steeped in colonialism, violence, and misrepresentation. By exploring the Indigenous perspective on Thanksgiving, we can not only discern some of the nuances of decolonization but gain a deeper understanding of American history.
The Nation does have a paywall, which allows you a couple of free articles, but I was already over their limit, and had to read it on my daily feed; you can avoid the paywall and read the article here.
If Sean Sherman is a proud member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, I am a proud descendant of Richard Warren, who arrived on these shores on the Mayflower,, and was, I assume, at that first Thanksgiving in 1621, and first religious Thanksgiving in 1623.
The sanitized version of Thanksgiving neglects to mention the violence, land theft, and subsequent decimation of Indigenous populations. Needless to say, this causes tremendous distress to those of us who are still reeling from the trauma of these events to our communities.
Thanksgiving’s roots are intertwined with colonial aggression. One of the first documented “Thanksgivings” came in 1637, after the colonists celebrated their massacre of an entire Pequot village.
I do not think we need to end Thanksgiving. But we do need to decolonize it. That means centering the Indigenous perspective and challenging the colonial narratives around the holiday (and every other day on the calendar). By reclaiming authentic histories and practices, decolonization seeks to honor Indigenous values, identities, and knowledge. This approach is one of constructive evolution: In decolonizing Thanksgiving, we acknowledge this painful past while reimagining our lives in a more truthful manner.
Ahhh, that new watchword of the left, ‘decolonization’. The left love to throw it around, but very few mean for it to apply to themselves. How many of the pro-Palestinian protesters are calling for ‘decolonization’ by the Jews in Israel, though they never seem to decolonize themselves, giving up their homes and property to the Indians.
The journey to decolonize Thanksgiving is also an opportunity for a broader movement to decenter colonial perspectives around the world. The University of Saskatchewan has possibly the most succinct definition of colonialism: “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” Western colonization has often exhibited a complete disregard for Indigenous customs and cultures that value diversity and a harmonious relationship with the land. Decolonization in this context would mean resisting the dominance of colonial influences globally and reclaiming Indigenous knowledge, values, and, of course, foodways.
The “foodways” part is due to Mr Sherman being a chef specializing in Indian foods. But yes, that’s a pretty good definition of colonialism, but it’s written to desensitize, because colonialism if the replacement of a weaker people by a stronger group.
Oops! I suppose that we’re not supposed to say that, but that is exactly what happens. In every nation on earth, with the notable exception of Iceland, the current ruling inhabitants moved from elsewhere and pushed out or assimilated or enslaved or just plain killed the people who were there before them. We are all here today because our ancestors conquered this great land.
This Thanksgiving, let’s break the bonds of colonization and capitalism — not just on our plates but in our perspectives, too. I want a Thanksgiving where I can be thankful that I live in a world where diversity is celebrated, and where every person’s connection to their food, land, and history is respected and cherished. I would like to be thankful not only for a more inclusive world but for a more accurate accounting of the past. This inclusivity and commitment to truth would honor Indigenous people, but also every person on the planet. Banning histories as a righteous crusade to eradicate different opinions is wrong; understanding true histories is necessary.
A decolonized Thanksgiving could transform a holiday marred by historical amnesia into a celebration of genuine gratitude, unity, and recognition of our rich Indigenous heritage. It would offer a clearer lens through which to see the entire world.
Me? I am genuinely grateful, grateful than my mother’s ancestors came to this great land, and grateful that they conquered it. I am genuinely grateful that the United States was created, and became a world power, because without that, my mother, who was from Portland, Maine, and my father, who was from Mau’i, would never have both been in Tokyo during the Korean War, and never met. Perhaps some readers’ family histories aren’t as obvious in detail, but there can’t be more than a handful of people born in the United States who would be alive today if it weren’t for European ‘settler colonialism’ in America.
That was Mr Sherman’s argument; Mr Iron Eyes feels differently:
In 1620, English sailors arrived on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Harbor. A year later, the English celebrated their first Thanksgiving — alone, until a Wampanoag defense party arrived, wanting to know why gunshots were being fired.
Our cherished national myth is that Thanksgiving originated with Natives welcoming friends who were fleeing religious persecution and then celebrating the harvest together. But the Wampanoags were not there to welcome or celebrate with foreigners. They had a mutual-defense pact with the Pilgrims and likely arrived out of duty. Yet over time, a young America branded this interaction as a “cohosted” Thanksgiving. George Washington celebrated Thanksgiving in 1789, and John Adams and James Madison followed suit. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, trying to unite Americans during their Civil War. Aliens in a foreign land need to invent new myths and identities to provide themselves with a sense of people, purpose, and place.
Now, why would the Wampanoags have a mutual-defense pact with the Pilgrims? It’s simple: they wanted help in defending themselves against other Indian tribes! There were no other people in the area, only Indian tribes and English settlers.
There is another, more illustrative Thanksgiving story not often shared in the mainstream. During this other early Thanksgiving, in 1637, European settlers gave thanks after their men returned safe from a raid on the Pequot, an Indigenous tribe living in present-day Connecticut, which led to the massacre of between 400 and 700 women, children, and men and the enslavement of those who survived. In this story, there is no mutual thanks; there is no giving. There is only consumption and taking.
You want to give thanks? Give thanks to Native nations who granted settlers some form of legitimacy — by entering into treaties recognizing them — to be in our homelands. Those treaties recognized that Americans are now under our spiritual custody and have rights to pass through our country. As soon as Americans were able to impose their will on Indigenous nations, the treaties were violated. Some Indigenous nations do not have treaties, and legally this means their nations should be intact. Those of us who have treaties have defensible legal claims to lands that are now occupied by private American settlers under US law. The United States is still not able to deliver clear title to the lands because they were illegally and unilaterally annexed by the United States. We know it was not the fault of American settlers who bought the stolen land. But in order to promote reconciliation, we want private landowners to support the transfer of federal and state lands back to the tribal nations that have valid claims to them. Give thanks by honoring the treaties, by giving land back.
Mr Iron Eyes complaint is, in effect, that the Indians lost as the primarily English Americans conquered the land, and the people living therein. Basically, he is asking for the title to virtually the entire United States. Nope, sorry, but no way.
Mr Iron Eyes continued to tell us:
In those early years of colonial settlement, Indigenous families, saviors of the interlopers, nursed them back to health, only to be slaughtered by them and subjected to decimation by biological warfare. To this day, the Doctrine of Discovery — the foundation of federal law permitting settlers to take possession of land they “discovered” — imposes a set of Christian-based “laws” and institutional thinking that confines Indian existence “legally,” politically, and economically. The reservation system, “blood quantum,” and the invention of the federally recognized tribes will lead to our extinction as nations, as distinct political entities. Thanksgiving is a lie in the same way Manifest Destiny is a lie: This continent was not a pristine, empty land that had yet to be put to “profitable” use in the ways “civilized” extractive alien economies defined it.
Yeah, it kind of was. It was held by an underpopulated group of Indian tribes who had left it almost ‘pristine,’ because they did not know how to exploit the natural resources this land had in abundance.
There were more than 300 distinct Indian tribal languages in North America when Europeans first arrived, and none of the Indian languages spoken north of Mexico had a written component. While their languages were complex, the North American Indians were entirely illiterate, something which contributed greatly to their weakness compared to the English settlers. An ignorance of writing also contributes to an extremely low development of mathematics, which dramatically reduces engineering abilities. If Mr Iron Eyes is able to write today, it is because he has absorbed enough of European Western civilization to be able to do so.
November is already Native American Heritage Month. Thanksgiving could be something better: a day to appreciate the truth of American history and Native Americans’ contributions to our lives. Let’s tell a different story by dropping the lie of Thanksgiving and begin a Truthsgiving.
A Truthsgiving? The truth is that America was a vast, unspoiled, underpopulated land with hundreds of scattered indigenous tribes not far removed from the Stone Age. Mr Iron Eyes might not like the truth, but the truth is that the European settlers brought with them an advanced knowledge and culture, and that has been for the benefit of the entire world.
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