Thanksgiving is approaching and I am conscious of this fact as my American friend who lives in London is keen to celebrate it. As a Brit, I’m clueless as to its meaning and need. Is it an American Christmas — a half-way one — perhaps; is it saying thank you to all who have been gracious; is it filling your table with mouth-watering, diligently prepared roasts while basking in the glow of your loved ones? I switched on my laptop and began my research.
After reading articles from various sources, I settled on a History.com piece. It was an insightful article, one that used the words ‘explorative expedition’, ‘Pilgrims’, ‘ settlers’ and in the same line ‘colonists’. Immediately I knew something was amiss. The piece, to me, read like a lesson on how to write euphemism. I couldn’t evade the nagging feeling that a vital part of the Thanksgiving story — its birth — is long-buried with the perpetrators. Perhaps being West African and knowing the consequence of slavery on the continent and Britain’s ostensible purity of it, made me suspect omission of something sinister.
All holidays have origin stories; some seemingly innocuous, shroud iniquitous past. Columbus Day: a day celebrating the conquistador, Christopher Columbus, a man who, in history, is revered as the discoverer of the world, is inadvertently a celebration of the misfortune of so many including the Indigenous Peoples, as it is this very man who subjugated, raped, stole, mutilated, and killed so many including children, pregnant women and the elderly.
The accounts from a Native American was thankfully forthright.
This year has been a year of congregated effort to learn and unlearn; the year the oppressed and the marginalised came together to exhume the past. American Police Officers unjustly taking lives of black and brown people, precipitated an eruption of worldwide protests, as though sparking islets of global bushfires, the world took to the streets in solidarity with the American movement, Black Lives Matter, and in turn, shone a light on racism and injustices on their respective lands. It’d appear an isolated incident was the cause of the chaos, but it had been brewing longer than most would admit. Every senseless murder fanned the flames which cupped the griddle of oppression, boiling over, toppling into the laps of a government who had failed its people. A broken social contract; the grieving and the furious wielding their tools hacked at the crack-bearing foundations on which the edifice of society as we know it was built.
Dismantling a system which perpetuates mass disinformation requires seeking untainted sources — preserved minds of the oppressed — who, with effort, have ensured they do not forget how far they have come; so they tell stories to their children for their children to pass on to theirs, for generations to come; stories that furtive school curriculums conceal.
The narrative that the Indigenous Peoples and the colonists (pilgrims, puritans, settlers) got on is false.
So I decided to look up the history of Thanksgiving from the perspective of Native Americans. As I suspected, there had been some omission. The accounts from a Native American was thankfully forthright. It hit me like a gush of cold steel wind, so bitingly vivid: the senseless slaughtering of millions of buffaloes, an epidemic brought on by the Mayflower voyage, the dispossessions and the killing, the mutilation and more killing. Suddenly, several images began to form in my mind: a seated man with both of his arms on a table, one hand holds a photograph and the other used as a headrest. He stares at the ceiling as though retrieving a misplaced memory, perhaps the day when that photo was taken; skyscrapers encasing a park, a stark contrast to the small oasis. The August sun reflects off the windows and on to the wildflowers which the butterflies spring off, and as though spotting the child, they follow her, encircling her as she speeds through the park. Beneath her youthful feet, the cracked earth entraps the blood of her ancestors, confined, unable to flow to the afterlife; A family whose likening their TV seldom bares for on this TV strange familiar colours appear, the feathers, they look so familiar yet repulsive. Unable to avert their eyes, the pixels become clearer, they see the laughing foreign faces: some holding red buckets and some jumping up and down with glow sticks in hand. The repulsion now deciphered, they see their precious culture and clothes trivialised: worn as Halloween suits and festival headpieces.
The piece, to me, read like a lesson on how to write euphemism. I couldn’t evade the nagging feeling that a vital part of the Thanksgiving story — its birth — is long-buried with the perpetrators.
Garishly covered are conquistadors and their conquests. Their warped accounts, told by obscurants, quench the young, whose parched ears glug and lubricate the machine which whirls, bolting into the following generation, and the next, and the next; Never at a standstill, duplicating what was successful — what has been successful — for so long.
“In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.”
Truth: Startled by the roaring fires of arms, The Indigenous Peoples thought the colonists were preparing for war and so they alerted their leader, chief Massasoit. On his arrival, seeing that the settlers were celebrating, Massasoit requested his men to bring deers and turkeys for the colonists.
Truth: The Indigenous Peoples believed in giving when blessed, giving where taken; Indebted to the land as it provided food, shelter, light, water: their survival, they rejoiced and so every day of the year, thanked and nurtured it. They didn’t appoint a single day of the year or 2 or 3 days; they were grateful all year round as a tradition and way of life. To mark a day in November 1621, designated by — although some unsuccessfully — Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison, Franklin Roosevelt, as the first-ever Thanksgiving eliminates Indigenous Peoples’ and the Native Americans’ long-practised culture.
The narrative that the Indigenous Peoples and the colonists (pilgrims, puritans, settlers) got on is false — perhaps, the concocted affability in which the story is embedded, is intentional — an educational objective — an attempt to allay the guilty conscience of its creators. The truth is their relationship was fraught with tension as the settlers slaughtered, raped and enslaved the Natives.
I do not believe that The Indigenous Peoples wish for others to stop celebrating Thanksgiving, but to celebrate it in a way that honours, acknowledges their lives and cultural existence way before Europeans invaded their land. New America owes their survival after disembarking the Mayflower to the Indigenous Peoples for they allowed them to learn their ingenious way of life: food, crop harvesting, building shelters; and as a ‘thank you’: stole.
The United States of America, a stolen land on which stolen and enslaved bodies cement its foundation and walls, can not outrun its architecture and masonry; any attempt to remove its structural walls in apathy will bring the entire building down, crushing, destroying all within.
To learn of each other is vital to our survival as co-habitants. It may be impossible to undo what happened, but we can, at least, unearth the truth, teach it as how it transpired — however uncomfortable we may feel — as in doing so validates the lives of those we’ve wronged; for gaslighting is pernicious and dehumanising.
Native writers on the myths of Thanksgiving :