Thanksgiving is a colonial holiday meant to erase the ruthlessness of English settlers. In a way, Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday: It is based on the erasure of Indigenous peoples, promotes a false vision of peaceful cooperation between nations, and has now become an excuse to indulge in the spectacles of hyper-consumption and football.
The historical record is murky about exactly when and where the first “Thanksgiving” was held. Most Americans say it was 1621 in what is now Massachusetts, when a group of Pilgrims and Indians gathered to celebrate the first harvest after the arrival of the Mayflower. Some point to when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863 as a way of reconciling communities during the Civil War. Both of those dates obscure the 1637 massacre of more than 700 Pequot men, women, children and elders in what is now Connecticut. The state governor celebrated that massacre with a Thanksgiving feast. There is a good case to be made that Thanksgiving is in fact a celebration of that genocide.
I have been thinking about the ruthlessness of this holiday and of what it conceals. Settlers are ruthless. Capitalism is ruthless. Patriarchy is ruthless. All of these were forced upon Indigenous communities without our consent. “Ruthless” comes from the old English word “rue” (to feel regret). Ruthlessness means having no regrets.
And how could settlers have regrets for the Pequot massacre? How could they regret the genocide of an entire nation, and then another, and then another? American exceptionalism depends on this historical amnesia, on this willful forgetting of what had to happen in order for the United States to exist as it does today. For the settler colony to succeed, the Natives had to be erased, assimilated or else mythologized out of existence. Thanksgiving is part of that project. It changes the narrative from one of truth and remembrance to one of a romantic point of origin, from which thanks rather than regret becomes the national feeling imputed to the aftermath of a massacre.
The ruthlessness of capital and of the elimination of Native people is what white people are actually celebrating on Thanksgiving, whether they know it or not. And even if they don’t realize it, they are also celebrating the victory of capitalism over community, of “modernity” over “heathenism.” The fundamental contradiction that Thanksgiving obscures is that settler colonialism has not — and in fact, cannot — be based on the giving of thanks, because it requires the taking of land and the displacement of Indigenous peoples.
The accumulation and ownership of land are antithetical to how most Indigenous peoples understand our relationships with people, the natural and spiritual worlds, and other-than-human beings. Writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who is Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg and a member of the Alderville First Nation, puts this succinctly in As We Have Always Done: “My Ancestors didn’t accumulate capital, they accumulated networks of meaningful, deep, fluid, intimate collective and individual relationships of trust.” We see relationships rather than capital as the key to our futures. We see the world this way because this is what has always sustained us. We have always understood the giving of thanks to be part of our everyday existence, part of how we maintain balance, part of how we think about the next seven generations, not just ourselves.
This is not to say that Indigenous peoples cannot be greedy or excessive, but rather that our communities have learned over millennia that greed leads to destruction, rather than harmony.
Indeed, many of our stories teach us about the equitable distribution of resources. They tell of how, when humans or other-than-humans become greedy, the entire community suffers. Our stories instruct how to maintain relationships in a just society that will flourish. In other words, our stories teach us how to be in good relations with each other and the rest of the world.
Being in good relations is a central ethical concept for many Indigenous nations. This means recognizing the mutual interdependence of human and other-than-human beings. It means engaging with others in a consensual, nonhierarchical way. But to be in good relations is not simply about treating others fairly. It is about taking actions in the present that are based in the historical and spiritual traditions of our communities, actions that promote the proper balance and reciprocity of the whole community.
Being in good relations is essentially anti-capitalist because it does not seek to accumulate wealth, but rather to recognize our reciprocal obligations toward each other, as individuals and as communities. I cannot help but think that this is what the Pequot, Wampanoag and other New England Indigenous nations were attempting to establish with their hospitality, sharing of resources with (and protection of) white settlers, only to be met with theft and murder. Only to be met with fire.
In order for Thanksgiving to mean anything other than a celebration of Native genocide, white people have to be honest with themselves about its origins. They have to recognize the Thanksgiving story as a foundational myth that serves to obfuscate settlers’ ruthlessness in dispossessing Native people.
In many Native communities, everyday life is about giving thanks, and about being in good relations, rather than capitalist excess. In order for Thanksgiving to truly be about the giving of thanks, settlers and their descendants have to first reckon with their ruthless disregard for Native life. They have to develop a sense that the theft of a continent is wrong. Only then will it be possible to work toward a new form of giving thanks that is based not on violence, but on being in good relations.