Tuesday, November 23, 2021

On Thanksgiving

 I love Thanksgiving. But it also makes me squirm.

Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday. In Canada, it is more of a harvest festival, and since it is celebrated on the second Monday in October, the holiday is not as long a holiday as in the US. In the US, not only is it the holiday with some of the year’s highest travel volume, but it also is a holiday that is practically religious in tone. It celebrates national unity with a just-so story of "the first Thanksgiving," and that is a problem.

On the one hand, I love the story of the Native Americans helping the English colonists, teaching them to farm better, introducing new foods like maize and squash, and helping them survive in the new country. It is the kind of help to refugees, to visitors, to guests, that nearly every religion and tradition calls for. It is a story that should embarrass all Americans who seek to militarize the Mexican border and who are so hostile to even allowing refugees apply for asylum. (Oddly, many of these so-called “patriots” even call themselves Christian, and yet they take a very un-Christian stance on refugees.) This is a story of cultural communication and mutual understanding. 

On the other hand, the story is also the first step in Americans’ displacing, killing, cheating the Indigenous People of their land and way of life. Far from a story of “brotherly love,” it is a story of the beginning of colonization and genocide. It is little wonder that the Wampanoag regret helping the colonists. That makes the Thanksgiving tale a strange thing to celebrate.

First, some debunking:

--Thanksgiving has not been celebrated continuously since the “first” one in 1621; harvest festivals giving thanks were common, but it only became a national holiday in the US under Lincoln, who wanted to create a national holiday as a symbol of national unity;

--The native Wampanoag people were not invited to the first event; they came because the English colonists shot their weapons in celebration, and the Wampanoag thought they were under attack, so came armed ready to defend them;

--Just 54 years later, in 1675, the settlers turned on the Wampanoag, then led by the son of the chief who had welcomed the English; thousands of people were killed and many were sold into slavery or indentured servitude, ending all organized resistance to English settlement in New England.

--There was most likely no turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but lots of seafood;

--The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were not the first colonists in America. Americans have emphasized the story of the Pilgrims to create an image of the founding Americans as religious people seeking freedom in a new land. The first settlers (who survived) were the colonists at Jamestown, VA, who came looking for lucre.

--The story of the first Thanksgiving creates an image of friendly Indians sitting down for a meal with the Pilgrims and then leaving, effectively giving America to white people. It is really the first chapter of the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Note that this story only became popular in the late 1800s, when wars with Indians were effectively over. And by removing the violence and death involved, it hides the colonization of the country by the settlers.

There are an increasing number of stories explaining the real origins of Thanksgiving, such as this Smithsonian Magazine article

So Thanksgiving should really be a time for Americans to think about how our current wealth is based on the wealth stolen—literally stolen and cheated—from the native Indigenous population.

People are coming to recognize this, so it is increasingly common for seminars, concerts and plays to begin with a "Land Acknowledgement," a recognition that we are standing on occupied land. I have mixed feelings about these statements, and I think many of the speakers who make these statements also feel uncomfortable, because they often stumble as they make their statement. (If you have not heard such statements, here is an video example of the statement that was made at a Stanford Law School convocation ceremony.)  

I feel a bit uncomfortable about these Land Acknowledgements, and of course, they are meant to make us feel uncomfortable, I know. But the problem I have with them is that they seem merely performative. What is the point of making these acknowledgements? Are we supposed to feel better afterwards? Are they proposing giving the land back? It seems like empty talk.

It turns out, I’m not alone in feeling this way. Akhil Gupta, who just finished his term as president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), mentioned in his Presidential Address Saturday that the Stanford Land Acknowledgement should be rewritten (he taught at Stanford for many years).

Present Land Acknowledgment

“Stanford sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people. Consistent with our values of community and inclusion, we have a responsibility to acknowledge, honor, and make visible the University’s relationship to Native peoples.”

Proposed Land Acknowledgment

Stanford sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land of 8200 acres is currently worth US$19 billion. We are sorry that the founder of the University, Leland Stanford, while governor of California, supported legislation and raised a volunteer army to kill Native peoples. We also regret that although we offer preferential admissions for alumni and donors, we have chosen not to offer preferential admission and a free education to all Native students. 

Obviously, the last part is a bit tongue in cheek, but it highlights the hypocrisy of claiming “consistent with our values of community and inclusion” but then offering NOTHING to the Native population. And the part of raising a volunteer army is not hyperbole; Leland Stanford was truly evil, worse than a war criminal (you can get a bit of the story here.)

Serranus Hastings, whose donation led to the founding of California’s oldest law school, was also involved in Indian massacres. “Hastings and Stanford built their colossal fortunes, in part, on California real estate.Both men thus profited from the theft of California Indian land. Having helped to facilitate genocide, they then used some of their wealth to create institutions that have benefited many people.” But the institutions do not really address or redress the crimes their founders committed.

How to address these crimes is not a simple issue. Roy Rapaport, another former AAA president, wrote back in 1969 that in many cases, money cannot compensate for some things. You can understand this idea, he says, when you think of a question such as

"How much money is your integrity (or honesty or vote) worth?" 

Any value in dollars that you suggest will destroy the value you are seeking to buy. He continues: “It follows that attempts to mitigate the violation of strongly held values through cash awards may be taken by those to whom they are offered as insults heaped on previous injuries. The Shoshone, for instance, have refused to accept a cash award of tens of millions of dollars as compensation for what they construe to be seizure of their lands by the federal government in violation of the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863.” You cannot right a moral wrong just by paying some money. 

Interestingly, a group of Indigenous anthropologists has asked the AAA to suspend land acknowledgements until more thoughtful and effective statements can be written. They argue that statements that say that Indigenous peoples acted as “stewards” or “custodians” of the land, and statements that refer to “ancestral homelands,” “relegate Indigenous peoples to a mythic past and fail to acknowledge that they owned the land,” and so “tacitly affirm the putative right of non-Indigenous people to now claim title.”

They also note that nothing is said about what is to happen next. The implication is that non-Indigenous people are now saying, “What was once yours is now ours.”

They also note that these statements fail to acknowledge the violent trauma that came with the theft of land from Indigenous people—“the death, dispossession, and displacement of countless individuals and much collective suffering.” In fact, most Americans prefer to think of the Native population being “pushed off the land” or “forced onto reservations,” which, when you think about it, are euphemisms for the murder and theft by the colonists.

The Indigenous anthropologists also worry that “pretendians”—people who are not official members of a tribe but claim to be Native Americans—undermine Indigenous rights by masquerading as indigenous people. This raises the important point that being Native American is not a racial category, but a political issue; one needs to be registered and recognized by a tribe to be of indigenous descent. It is not about genes. 

So this Thanksgiving, you don’t need to give a formal Land Acknowledgement, but all Americans should think about who should rightfully own the land we live on. People like me, whose family arrived after the worst of the genocide had already occurred, cannot hide behind the excuse that they and their family did not do it. In my case, for example, my father’s family came in 1920, but his family would not have moved to the US from Italy had the continent not been seized from the Native peoples. My uncles did not go into farming or mining, so only claimed the small plot on which the family lived, but clearly they benefitted from the great wealth of the country, as wealth based in part on the stolen patrimony of the indigenous population. Americans got much more than squash and maize from the Native Americans. And that is something we should ponder, on this the 400th anniversary of that first Thanksgiving.

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