The American media and education system have whitewashed the legacy of Indigenous genocide, and made Thanksgiving into a harmless folktale, and a nationwide celebration.
Before you get upset, no one is asking you to stop eating turkey or spending time with your loved ones. What I am asking is that you stop for a second and think about why you do it.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday that takes place on the last Thursday of November where (mostly non-Native) families and friends gather, eat great food, and show gratitude for everything they have. I wonder how many of them — particularly the white folks complaining to their relatives about the “immigrant problem” — ever acknowledge that the reason they’re sitting around a dinner table stuffing their faces with stuffing, is largely because Europeans invaded the continent, killed (directly or systemically) millions of Native Americans, set up governments that slowly stripped them of their sacred lands and gave them to white people instead, and fabricated mountains of lies and ideologies that justified these actions by classifying Indigenous people as belonging to ‘savage’ or ‘warring’ tribes. That’s right, folks. Being different, and having local levels of violence means you deserve to be invaded. According to the settler logic of America that is.
History is a blueprint for the present. Every time someone asks “how did we get to this?”, the answer is always “look at what happened before.” History is how we understand ourselves, our surroundings, our language and behaviours, and our world at large. Without it, as Howard Zinn said, “anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”
Which is exactly what’s happened in America. The abject conditions of Native Americans that continue to this day are not seen as part of a 500-year-long campaign of genocide and displacement — along with racist symbolism to justify it — that has never been redressed in history. The same goes for other settler colonies like Canada, Brazil, Australia, and so on.
So what’s the history of Thanksgiving exactly? There is no original “Thanksgiving”, as far as we know, but in 1863, Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday. The whitewashed, folkloric narrative of “Pilgrims and Indians” started to pop up after this. While the Mayflower did arrive in 1620, and the invading Pilgrims — I use the term invading here because they did not ask the Natives for consent to settle, which by accounts of most nations on Earth, is an invasion — did have a successful harvest the following year, we don’t really know whether there was a festival that Wampanoag natives attended to celebrate with the Pilgrims. It’s possible that exposure to the sickly Pilgrims killed them as well, a common result of European invasion of the continent.
There are also arguments that Thanksgiving is rooted in the massacre of 400-700 Pequot Natives in 1637, where English settlers declared a festival after the “bloody victory”. The history, however, is murky, and it’s difficult to say for sure what happened. Regardless, the invasion by the Pilgrims was a stepping stone to further colonisation by Europeans, who came to swarm North America — or Turtle Island, as it is known in Native spaces — and culturally and physically erase its indigenous populations.
You might be asking yourself what your turkey has to do with all these horrors. It’s not about the turkey. It’s about the land you live on, the land that was stolen from millions of people, and how you now save one day in the year to think about a likely mythical event of harmony between genocidal colonists and indigenous people. Thanksgiving cannot be disconnected from this. It is, like every other non-indigenous societal construct in Turtle Island today, a part of the campaign of destruction, cultural erasure (most evident in the traumatic residential school programmes that ended in 1993), and the ongoing legacy of indigenous plight across the continent.
Generations of people born into oppression have always had to face the tides threatening to wash away their collective memory and history, because without it, how would they know who was responsible? How would they know they were once free, and now suffer under a system that they had no choice in? Don’t let fictitious narratives replace the truth of the past. Learn the truth, face up to it, and, eventually, do something.