“It was not all Thanksgiving dinners in those early days.”
– Vine Deloria Jr. (Lakota)
I have nothing to say about Thanksgiving. Or maybe I should say, Thanksgiving has nothing to say to me.
Like sports mascots and hipster doofus celebrities wearing faux headdresses, Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Native American and Indigenous people in the United States. And try as Native people might, we can’t seem to get rid of it or change the way it is perceived or represented. This is because Thanksgiving, like mascots and faux headdresses, serves the capitalism of empire.
Thanksgiving erases the genocide, sexual violence, land fraud and hate that defined early colonial histories and that continue to define US-Native relations.
The national holiday image of a happy extended family inviting another to generously celebrate a harvest of good food erases, distorts, shames and belittles Native people in the interest of making a buck (whether it be a dollar or the capital of cross-cultural awareness). Retailers love Thanksgiving’s inauguration of the season, which promises every year to pull them out of the red (no pun intended). Sports fans love Thanksgiving and its near-constant stream of games and all of the competition (betting) and commercialism it brings with it. And self-proclaimed fashionistas love that Thanksgiving legitimates their use of headdresses as “hip” costumes. After all, how bad can it be to wear grown-up versions of those headdresses they cut out in grade school, alongside pilgrim hats and turkey feathers?
Thanksgiving is a nationalist holiday defined by the rituals of making money and self indulgence. Nationalist traditions advance the idea of the freedom to be happy by erasing the consequences of imperial capitalism.
Those traditions are certainly not about the “first Thanksgiving” in 1637. John Winthrop, governor of an English colony in what is now Massachusetts, held a feast in honor of a volunteer militia who had returned from their massacre of 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Nation. The federal holiday was established in 1863. By then, the mythic narrative had become the national truth: Pilgrims (Americans) gave thanks for surviving, thanks to the “Indians” who fed them and taught them how to grow corn.
Nothing about the myth, of course, is about Native people, neither the genocide and enslavement – nor the survival – of the Pequot Nation or other Native nations in New England. Thanksgiving erases the genocide, sexual violence, land fraud and hate that defined early colonial histories and that continue to define US-Native relations. It distorts into a magically happy scene of an extended family dinner, including the “racial other,” a relationship that was and is actually based on slavery, poverty, war and rape. And it shames and belittles Native people who contest and contend the representations as wannabe politically correct, overly sensitive, “not enoughs” trying to grab onto the public spotlight for themselves.
And so Native people talk about the real “Thanksgiving” (the first and the ones that followed), the lives and struggles of Native people today for treaty and territorial rights, and the cultural significance of headdresses. And in the backlash of those discussions, Native people are told to get over it. They’re being too sensitive. Ridiculous. Boring.
This is all because the “Indian” that Thanksgiving represents is not Native and does not belong to Native people. It is the “Indian” of a colonial present, created by US expansionist, extractive capitalism.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
– Lilla Watson (Murri [Aboriginal Australian])
What if Natives could reimagine the challenge of Thanksgiving not as one of “correcting the history” but as one of refusing the imperial state’s capitalism that this history normalizes and legitimates? What if non-Native allies could see that the issues defining Thanksgiving, mascots and faux headdresses for Native people are related to their own struggles for labor, wage, housing, immigrant and refugee rights, and other social justice issues?
I honestly do not care if people have a turkey dinner with their family. I do care if people pretend that such a day celebrates or honors Native history and culture.
Native concerns and ideas about Thanksgiving are situated within a broader political context that includes struggles for labor, wage, housing, immigrant and refugee rights, struggles against police violence and struggles for social justice. These are struggles aimed at US imperialism and capitalism, at the way the exploitation of the land and environment supports the military-police-surveillance-industrial complex, at the way that complex facilitates gender- and sexual-based violence, and at the way it legitimates political suppression for national security. In other words, US imperialism and capitalism have produced the situation in which Native peoples are erased, poor people’s labor is exploited, Black people are murdered with impunity by police, immigrants are illegally detained and deported, and the land and water is destroyed in the name of oil and gas extraction.
Native efforts are not merely against Thanksgiving for Thanksgiving’s sake. Their efforts are to be seen, heard and respected, for the sake of their treaty, territorial and environmental justice rights. When they are told that their concerns about Thanksgiving’s erasure of colonialism are irrelevant and outdated, they are being told – and they hear – that their struggles for treaty, territorial and environmental justice do not matter.
To the extent that the colonial narrative of Thanksgiving erases Native peoples, it simultaneously erases attention on their current rights efforts to protect the land and the water from extractive, contaminant technologies and the way those efforts are linked to others’ social justice concerns.
What’s Honor Got to Do With It?
I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving in quite a long time. But I honestly do not care if people have a turkey dinner with their family and/or friends and watch TV on Thanksgiving. I do care if people pretend that such a day celebrates or honors Native history and culture.
I challenge everyone to find out who the Indigenous people are of the land that they celebrate Thanksgiving on, whether it be at their own residence or someone else’s. I challenge them to educate themselves about the history and current struggles of that people – and to do something productive to honor them and their ancestors.