Thanksgiving: The white side of history

For decades, the U.S. has ignored the genocide of Native Americans

Thanksgiving: The white side of history
On this Day, Native Americans mourn the genocide of their ancestors – Photo: File Photo/Reuters
English 28/11/2019 16:30 EL UNIVERSAL in English/Gretel Morales Mexico City Actualizada 16:30
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Today, the majority of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving by gathering to feast on turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie yet for Native Americans, today is the National Day of Mourning. This date marks the genocide of their ancestors, the theft of their land, and the start of an era plagued by racism and marginalization.

Americans often refer to pilgrims as the first “settlers,” dismissing the Native Americans and black slaves who already inhabited the land. The problem with this idea is that it erases the culture and heritage of the Indigenous population who had settled in the territory hundreds of years before the colonizers.

In his book The Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen explores how white authors and historians have constructed a myth that positions British colonizers as the first settlers, even ignoring the Spanish, French, Dutch, who arrived long before the English.

The colonization process

In 1617, before the pilgrims arrived in what is now the U.S., a pandemic killed hundreds of Native Americans, who were healthy yet not resistant to these types of diseases. According to Loewen, the illness that killed them could have been “the bubonic plague; others suggest that it was viral hepatitis, smallpox, chicken pox, or influenza.” This devastating pandemic killed between “90 to 96% of the inhabitants of coastal New England.”

As a result of several pandemics, the native population decreased in large numbers. This pushed Native Americans to form alliances with colonizers in order to survive but it also meant that the colonization process advanced at a quicker pace. Pilgrims also often robbed graves of bows, maize, beans, and more to survive.

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In fact, the British' immunity to several diseases would become their best weapon against American Indians and in 1623, the British used chemical warfare for the first time by poisoning several tribes.

According to Loewen, Thanksgiving celebrates American ethnocentrism. Furthermore, it has become part of the foundational myth of the U.S., which seems to erase all the atrocities Europeans, especially the English, perpetrated against the natives.

Thanksgiving, as a ritual, marginalizes Native Americans and erases their genocide and culture and portrays them as friendly Indians who helped the colonizers, when in fact, they helped the pilgrims and formed alliances and survive.

Moreover, before the pilgrims allegedly introduced this tradition, “Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries.” Thanksgiving, as we know it today, was established in 1863 and it was Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Loewen explains that pilgrims were not even included in the tradition until the 1890s.

The National Day of Mourning

In 1970, the Native Americans of New England established the third Thursday of November as the National Day of Mourning, to commemorate the genocide of their ancestors.

This story dates back to 1970 when the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoags to chose someone to give a speech to mark the 350th anniversary of the pilgrims’ arrival on native land. The Wampanoags selected Frank James, but when the white organizers read his incendiary speech, he wasn't allowed to read it.

James speech was censored because it revealed a historical truth:

“Today is a time of celebrating for you (...) but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People (…) The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans (...) Before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags (...) and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them (…) Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts (…) What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.”

Now, every year, Native Americans and allies gather to tell their side of the story and to remember their ancestors.
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