Reflections on “Thanksgiving” from Indian Country

Recently, I was in an academic setting with several people and the “holidays” came up, a particularly sensitive race scholar noted that I do not celebrate “Thanksgiving.” The observation itself was noteworthy for its rarity. There is absolutely no reason for a Native American to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is an event which celebrates the survival of a people who would go on to perpetrate possibly the most far reaching genocide in human history. This post began as a historical retelling, and if you are looking for corrections to the historic record Jessie has excellent ones here and here and Joe does a wonderful job here. An interesting note on Thanksgiving is that the turkey is known as the giveaway bird because he is willing to sacrifice everything to help the people live. Whereas, many outsiders see the turkey as a silly bird, he embodies a fundamental concept about sacrifice and survival in Indian country.

Thanksgiving creates interesting reactions in Indian Country and in my household. On the one hand, it is very Native. All special times and ceremonies are celebrated with the inclusion of a feast and a giveaway. So, any ceremonial occasion could be Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving, we take time to remember that if we were a less trusting or less honorable culture, we would not have Thanksgiving. We would also not have stone carvings of genocidal men carved in the Sacred Black Hills and drilling set to commence at the foot of Bear Butte. We fill a pipe and make prayers, with small hope, that Leonard Peltier will see the Black Hills again before he dies. We sing songs in languages that are barely surviving and teach our children to sing it as well so that it may survive one more generation. We are grateful to have our children since for so many generations they were stolen away to missionary boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language and sexually assaulted with regularity while being indoctrinated with “Christian” principles those Pilgrims brought over.

We make prayers for the elderly and the children on reservations with no heat and inadequate housing. We hope that we will not be attending the celebrations of their life as they succumb to death by exposure as so many do each winter. In my household, we bring out choke cherries saved from the summer picking up North and a bit of buffalo to keep us connected to home. We set out the gifts received from others in the many ceremonies through the year and make prayers for them and smile in appreciation of them. We do all of these things before we put on the turkey and dressing and get ourselves ready to join in the dominant pastimes of food excess and football. Because we too have become a part of that colonizing culture in so many ways. Some years we duck those traditions and spend the entire day remembering our ancestors and relatives in ceremonies more in keeping with our culture and take a moment to be thankful because we are still here against all odds.

~ This post is from the archive, originally posted November, 2010.

Historical Oppression of the Navaho (Diné): Surrender or Be Shot

Hastobíga, Navaho Medicine-man
Creative Commons License photo credit: Smithsonian Institution [Hastobíga, Navaho Medicine-man, born just after the Long Walk]

There is a very good website to bookmark, Native American Netroots. It has important researched articles on Native American issues of many kinds. Today I saw this article on the U.S. invasion of Navaho territory in the southwest, and the ways in which the U.S. government and its military invaded Navaho territory and stole land, often using deception and killing to gain its goals. This era is the one in which the white-racist expansionist term, “manifest destiny,” was created to justify this kind of expansion. Here are some excerpts from a blog article, “the First U.S. Treaties with the Navaho,” by Ojibwa:

In 1846, the United States took control of New Mexico and Arizona. The United States Army . . . occupied the territory which had been acquired from Mexico. One of the major priorities of the new regime was to “pacify” the Navajo who had been raiding against the Spanish settlements in the area. However, instead of bringing peace, federal government actions often brought increased warfare. The American army made it clear that they intended to side with the European settlers without examining the causes for the hostilities. The army refused to recognize that the Indians had often been the victims of unfriendly European settlers [colonists].

One of the typical rationalizations in the white racial framing of Native Americans, from the beginning, has been that they were “uncivilized” and “primitive savages,” who did not know how to use the land. Yet, even white U.S. Indian officials and traders like Charles Bent, in an 1840s letter, presented easily gained information that showed these racist images were frequently just intentional misrepresentations and lies designed to legitimate the land theft and oppression (often genocide) often directed at Native Americans. Here is part of Bent’s that letter about the Navaho as

an industrious, intelligent and warlike tribe of Indians who cultivate the soil and raise sufficient grain for their own consumption and a variety of fruits.

Ojibwa summarizes other parts of the letter, indicating that Bent further explained the advanced Navahos also

manufactured blankets and woolen goods. Other traders during this time observed that Navajo blankets were coveted trade items among other Indians, such as the Cheyenne.

After years of struggle, battles, and treaties, the U.S. army finally forced the Navaho onto a barren “reservation”:

In 1863, General Carleton issued an ultimatum to the Navajo: they were to peacefully transfer to the reservation at Bosque Redondo or be treated as hostile. Colonel Kit Carson began to wage a “scorched earth” campaign against the Navajo. The plan … called for all male Navajo to surrender or be shot. This resulted in the Navajo Long Walk [see here on this march of 10,000 Navajos and Apaches at gunpoint], their imprisonment, and having the Treaty of Bosque Redondo forced upon them in 1868.

This was in the middle of the U.S. Civil War. Clearly, the white manifest destiny’s call could not even be put aside during that massive war. Once again, our highly racialized and oppressive history in regard to indigenous Americans is not realistically taught (are not taught at all) in most of our schools to most of our country’s children or adults. We are nation built on land theft, genocide, and slavery, but I rarely even cursory discussion of any of that in the mainstream media–and indeed even in the white progressive/left media online or in print publications. Why do you suppose that is?

(Note: Another good site to bookmark is Indian Country Today. Also see this article on the Navaho Nation.)