Holidaze: What are you thankful for?

Posted: November 28, 2014 in America, Americans, Capitalism, Holidays, Holidaze, Imperialism, Open Your Eyes, Our World, Racism, the market
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Hello friends and family across the screens, I hope this post finds you well.

It’s Thanksgiving again, and as usual, the holidaze is in effect. This Thanksgiving, as with each, I am thankful for many things. This year I am in a new house, in a new country, speaking a new language, working in a new field I actually consider useful, and I can’t help but be thankful for it all. But on this, the American day of “thanks,” I think I might be most thankful to understand the true, actual history behind arguably the most quintessentially American celebration. After all, the history of Thanksgiving is quite literally the history of America’s beginnings, and thus America itself.

Thanks-giving feasts are and have been celebrated around the world throughout history. In the United States, the end-of-November “Thanksgiving Day” holiday was declared by President Abraham Lincoln to recognize and celebrate the founding colonists’ first year of survival in North America. Unfortunately however, this is not the whole story. Though taught as a wholesome celebration of the natural bounty that springs from the American way of life with the help of our friends, the generous Native people, the history of this day of thanks is actually a bit more complicated, and a bit more sinister.

There is some truth behind the Thanksgiving story we all know, going back to 1621, one year after midwinter of 1620 when the famous Mayflower first landed on the North American coast. The Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated in reference to the three-day feast Governor William Bradford declared to thank God for their survival. But what get’s lost in the traditional teachings of the holiday’s history is exactly what that survival entailed.

In 1620 the ship known as the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock with 102 British exiles, ready to start fresh with their newly founded, Puritan way of life. However as we know they were not the first Europeans to set foot on North American shores. Six years earlier, in 1614, a small expedition of Brits had scoped out the East coast on behalf of the British crown. They only stayed on land for a short time but when they left they brought 24 Natives back to England with them as slaves, and left Smallpox in their wake. In just a few years the smallpox they first introduced to the Natives had spread and decimated 90% of the 500+ nations.

Fast forward to 1620 and our beloved Mayflower landed on what looked more like Plymouth Tombstone than Plymouth Rock. Plymouth itself was erected just beside the ruins of an abandoned Native village that had been devastated by Smallpox. Now, it’s true that the English immigrants of 1620 probably would have died without Native help and generosity. But that help was only possible due to – and in fact came primarily from – the sole survivor of that ghost village by Plymouth, Squanto.

Squanto was a former slave of the English and Spanish, and had thus learned the respective languages of his European masters. For asylum he offered himself to the settlers who used his insights to grow corn for their people, and his translation skills to negotiate peace treaties with the surrounding tribes. So in 1621 after a year of plentiful corn crops and relative peace, the first, three-day, thanks-giving feast and celebration was declared. This was not the official holiday we all know of course, but it served as the benchmark for colonists living on the former land of exterminated Natives to declare thanks to their Christian God for allowing such “blessings.” In reality much of their survival was actually dependant on the former enslavement and subsequent cooperation of Squanto, and the biological devastation of the Smallpox their predecessors had unleashed upon North America.

Fast forward another 15 years. A decade of prosperity had attracted greater numbers of Europeans to North American shores, and with them had come their Puritan methods of trade dependent on the individual ownership of property. This was far different from and highly contradictory to the Native ideals of communal land ownership. In fact this was far different from what much of the world had seen at the time, and proved to be the critical vehicle for the establishment and expansion of capitalist economics. So with an increased population of settlers interested in trading private property, the question arose: who did the land legally belong to?

To propagate their economic way of life, the settlers agreed that public land belonged to the King (by way of his divine right), represented in the Americas by the Governor. The Puritans believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, and that the rest of the world was damned. As a result, their invasion and the fight for their prosperity was justified by the support of God, and the lives of those not aligned with their ideals were expendable. The rest of the world was doomed to damnation either way. Any within the colonies who opposed this idea and claimed the Natives as the rightful land owners were quickly excommunicated and literally thrown out into the woods to starve. The Puritans needed only to look to Psalms, chapter 2, verse 8 for their justification, in which the Bible writes, “Ask of me and I shall give thee the brethren for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” The whole of the earth was theirs for the taking.

This justification worked perfectly for the paralleled ideals of expansion that form the basis of capitalist economics. So much so that stockholders in an English trading company – who had been awarded by the King the right to govern their company’s own internal affairs – voted in 1629 to move the company and themselves to North America. These stockholders landed north of Plymouth, establishing Massachusetts as a self-governing company of stockholders. Once on North American soil, it did not take long for these money-driven stockholders to realize that their most profitable commodity was the slave trade. Labor, after all, essentially pays for itself.

The conquest and enslavement of Natives became so profitable that for decades it was the centerpiece of their new trade markets. In 1641, the Dutch Governor of Connecticut offered the first scalp (or “redskin”) bounty, drastically increasing the number of massacres against Native communities once again. Of course, because the mere eradication of threats was not nearly as profitable as enslavement, Native men were slaughtered while women and children were sold off into slavery. Several years later, various Manhattan churches decided to celebrate the prosperity that had come from this State-sanctioned genocide and mass-enslavement, and the first official “Thanksgiving Day” was declared.

Well into the 1670’s, Natives tried fighting back against the colonists with little success. But just to insure the continued success of the slave economy, a final call for massacre and enslavement was made. At the rate of 20 shillings per scalp and 40 per slave, the rest of the Native resistance was silenced. In 1676, Massachusetts declared “Thanksgiving,” to engrain within the State a public day of thanks to God, for once again eliminating all obstacles in their way. After that, the rest is history.

President Washington was the first to call for a national day of Thanksgiving, though as we know, it wasn’t until Lincoln that the national holiday of Thanksgiving was made an official, annual event. For Lincoln, the day served as a most useful tool. It was the perfect myth to aid in his efforts at solidifying and unifying the nation. Thanksgiving celebrated the prosperity and the bounty of the American way of life while not only ignoring, but masking and silencing the brutal nature behind the red, white, and blue curtain.

So where does that leave us today? Americans everywhere have heard the stories of Native genocide perpetrated by the European settlers of the colonies’ early days, yet most still celebrate the wholesome-looking holiday nonetheless. Some may not believe the holiday is directly related. Some may try to rationalize that the murder and enslavement that got us here isn’t what they and their families celebrate around the Thanksgiving table. Some may even write it all off as an unfortunate hiccup, or ignore our bloody past all together. But we can’t go on ignoring our past. The rest of the world knows how the United States forged its beginnings and see the hypocrisy in holidays like Thanksgiving clear as day. The fact of the matter is that to not only accept, but celebrate these atrocities as they were designed to be celebrated while perpetuating worldwide “humanitarian” campaigns for “democracy,” “freedom,” and “justice” is hypocrisy at its worst.

There is hope though. There are ways we can call attention to this hypocrisy and begin to overturn the oppressive power structures that carry through to today and spill out onto the streets of places like Ferguson, Syria, and Palestine: our homes. We can start by stopping. Stop honoring this day of genocide. We can gather with our families and give thanks to our Gods for all that we have been blessed with, but we hold no obligation to the “Thanksgiving” title. Instead we could celebrate Harvest Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. Universities like Brown U. and Hampshire College have already brought petitions to their administrations demanding they change the name of the holiday to reflect and honor the countless native lives and land stolen by the early European settlers. We could all follow in their footsteps and change the name of the holiday to honor those who died so we could be here. It is possible to change things. Just this year Seattle became the first city to abolish their celebration of Christopher Columbus, arguably the father of modern slavery and genocide. The rest of the United States could take these steps and start moving ourselves in the right direction.

When Ghandi was asked what he though of Western civilization, he said he thought it sounded like a good idea. Plato said that the origins of a just society must come from equal access to a good education. Well, learning the true history behind our world and honoring those who actually deserve it is a damn good first step. Holidays are a fantastic way to teach our children about our ever-increasingly complicated world one piece at a time, so why not teach them to honor the people whose lives were stolen from them to build the world we see today. Let’s stop retelling the fantasies we’ve been taught to cover the truth, and start teaching the truth. Let’s abandon our old, false stories and embrace the real ones. Only then can we hope to start writing new futures. Who knows, maybe if our children learn to value the lives that have been decimated by history they’ll start to value their brothers’ and sisters’ lives as well.

Onward and upward.

Z

If you would like to look deeper into what I’ve written about here, check out “Native Blood,” an essay found at Kasamaproject.org

Or watch my good friend and mentor Solomon Comissiong from the University of Maryland discuss the topic further here. (YouTube)

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