Grappling with Colonialism at Thanksgiving

by Mark Miles

Thanksgiving used to be one of my favorite holidays. The reasons for this are numerous and obvious: there’s good food in abundance, there’s time to laugh and visit with family, there are exceptional movies being released in anticipation of awards season, and there’s pecan pie. Needless to say, any holiday with pecan pie has a special place in my heart. In addition I’m an avid aficionado of history and I love the Baroque era, during which the first recognized celebration of Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth Colony.

But all of that belies the fact that Thanksgiving is also a celebration of genocide, which took place hundreds of years ago and which is still taking place today. This genocide is the ugly side of Thanksgiving and is frequently ignored by our culture for any number of reasons. These reasons are numerous but not so obvious, and they are rooted in events that took place hundreds of years ago and spanned thousands of miles. I can only begin to illustrate the depth of this history in one brief article, but I’ll do my best to condense the story and make it easily understood.

The time was the early seventeenth century. Europe had been wracked by religious conflict for decades, revolving around the emergence of Protestantism and the resistance of Catholicism to any potential competitor for spiritual supremacy. These religious differences were primarily superficial but provided a thinly-veiled rationalization for the expansionism and colonialism of European monarchs who were quite frankly besotted with their own deification. James I of England was one of these monarchs and never flinched from using his authority to persecute those whom he perceived to be religious dissidents. Separatists who wished for independence from the Anglican church formed one of these groups of dissidents, and it was persecution at the hands of James I that led them to emigrate from England.

Portrait of James I (Jon de Critz, 1606)

In 1609 these Separatists–who would later come to be known as Pilgrims–emigrated to the Netherlands. They were however unfamiliar with the culture in which they found themselves and became worried about the prospect of losing their identity in the fray of the rapidly industrializing city of Leiden. Events went from bad to worse when English authorities came to Leiden to arrest one of their number for writing comments critical of James I, and by 1619 these displaced Separatists were actively planning to emigrate once again. In this case, the Netherlands wasn’t far enough to escape James I. Only the distance provided by the Atlantic Ocean would satisfy their desire to be free of religious persecution at the hands of their own king.

After a hazardous passage over forbidding seas, the Separatists landed on this continent in 1620 and established relations with local Native American peoples, including the Wampanoags and their chief Massasoit. There had previously been a wave of epidemics in the area, precipitated by the intrusion of European colonizers who were quick to exploit the rapid depopulation of entire communities. Some estimates indicate that as many as two-thirds of native people in the region of what is now New England died from infectious diseases introduced by Europeans. In any case the Separatists were not responsible for this, and Massasoit made no attempt to blame them for other people’s misdeeds. Consequently a peace treaty was signed in 1621, and there was a level of trust between the colonists and natives for a short time to come.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Brownscombe, 1914)

Decades passed, and with time the number of Plymouth colonists increased. In 1621, the number of colonists was fifty. By 1630, the number had climbed to three hundred. By 1643, the number had skyrocketed to two thousand. Combined with the fact that colonists continued to acquire Wampanoag land at an alarming rate, there came to be increasing hostility between the natives and colonists. The Wampanoags had kept their end of the peace treaty of 1621, but increasingly the Separatists of Plymouth Colony were reneging on their end of the bargain. In the peace treaty, there had been an implicit understanding that the colonists would limit their numbers and would respect Wampanoag territorial sovereignty. This, however, was clearly not the case.

By the 1660s, tension between colonists and natives was thick enough to cut with a knife. Massasoit had died in 1661, and his son Wamsutta succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. Wamsutta had witnessed the collapse of the fur trade–by which his people had previously made a living–and had begun to resort to selling his people’s land to the Plymouth colonists. Doing commerce with the Wampanoags had by this time been made illegal, and Wamsutta was arrested by the governor of Plymouth Colony. After being administered a “portion of working physic,” Wamsutta was released from custody and died within three days. Proof was circumstantial, but it nonetheless pointed to the conclusion that the governor had ordered the poisoning of Wamsutta.

Wamsutta’s brother Metacom–who came to be known by the title of King Philip–then succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. From the events of recent decades, Metacom had learned that the colonists were untrustworthy. They continued to encroach on Wampanoag lands and continued to deal with the Wampanoags unjustly. After a Christianized Indian had died under circumstances that may have been suicidal, three Wampanoags were hauled before a court in Plymouth colony, convicted on scant evidence, and promptly executed by hanging. The date of this hanging was June 8th, 1675. By June 20th, 1675, the Wampanoags were at war with Plymouth Colony.

Philip, King of Mount Hope (Paul Revere, 1772)

This war has been named Metacom’s War, though it could just as easily have been named the War of Territorial Acquisition or the War of Colonial Belligerence. In any case, it was a devastating event in Wampanoag history and resulted in the further decimation of their numbers. By 1676 the Wampanoags numbered no more than a thousand, while colonists in the whole of New England numbered eighty thousand. By the end of Metacom’s War, forty percent of the Wampanoag people had been killed. Of those few who remained, a great number were sold into slavery. By the early 1700s, the Wampanoag people had effectively been wiped out.

This story would be awful in and of itself. It’s made worse, however, by the fact that what happened in the seventeenth century is still happening in the twenty-first century. Only now in place of a colonialist government seeking to steal native land, there’s a neocolonialist corporation seeking to despoil native land. Specifically Dakota Access, LLC, is in the process of desecrating land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota. To make matters worse, Dakota Access is doing this for the express purpose of enlarging their own corporate profit margins, regardless of the consequences to anyone living downstream from the projected path of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This is bad for a few reasons: 1) the projected pipeline will be crossing the Missouri River, which is a major source of drinking water for many Midwestern states; 2) every pipeline has a significant risk of leakage; 3) the crude oil which will be transported is highly flammable and toxic; and 4) the Missouri then feeds into the Mississippi River. From this, you can see that the effect of the pipeline could be devastating for millions of people whose drinking water could easily be contaminated by fossil fuels in the near future. If there’s any consolation in all of this, it’s the fact that the Standing Rock Sioux have done their best to defend their land against this desecration by blocking access to certain projected construction sites for the pipeline; how long they’ll be able to continue this, however, is uncertain due to the persecution they’ve experienced at the hands of private security forces and law enforcement.

Standing with Standing Rock (Pax Ahimsa Gethen, 2016)

So this is why I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. As much as I love the prospect of eating lots of delicious food with friends and family who enrich my life on a daily basis, I’m nonetheless torn by the realization that this entire celebration is built on the blood and pain wrought by centuries of genocide perpetrated against native peoples. It’s not a pleasant thought, and it doesn’t bring me any kind of happiness to dwell on it. Quite honestly there are times when I wish I could bury my head in the sand and forget about it. But that wouldn’t change the reality of what has happened and what is happening. On the contrary, it would be a betrayal of all that’s worth fighting for in this life. And if there’s one thing worth fighting for in this life, it’s the land we love.

41 thoughts on “Grappling with Colonialism at Thanksgiving

  1. I appreciate your sharing this. I have a small but strong thread of Native American blood, and I study history. That combination supports everything you say. I will add, however, that religion made an explanation for some of the immigrants, but before long capitalism mattered more. Also, this religion espousing love for one’s fellow man did not include anyone that was inconvenient to love, such as Native Americans or slaves. One thing my study of history has given me is a skeptical approach to religions in general, especially those claiming Abraham as an ancestor.

    Maybe this piece will do something to counter the overboard commercialism that has come to permeate all of our holidays. I have set aside most of the usual trappings of Thanksgiving in favor of spending the day in activities the either bring me gratitude or express the gratitude I have.

    1. Thank you for you thoughtful comment. I agree with your sentiments about religion. I was raised in a religious family, but it didn’t take long for me to realize as I was growing up that what people believe and what they do often don’t align.

      When I found out more about the history of exploitation and oppression perpetrated by the Catholic Church and most other religions, I had another reason to distance myself from religion in general. That said, I’m still spiritual and ethical but in ways that are more meaningful and pertinent to my own life. Thank you again.

  2. Thank you for this reminder. I like to think the American Indian spirit is rising among those who respect the earth more than property rights. It occurs to me that the European culture of property rights and lines in the sand was so alien to the Native Americans that by the time they comprehended what was happening, it was too late. We are seeing the result of centuries of disrespect for the earth that supports us all.

    This brings me to one of the most dangerous practices of modern history, that of eminent domain. Ever since the Supreme Court confiscated Susette Kelo’s neighborhood for the city of New London, Connecticut, in 2005, communities around the country have used it to take private land on the flimsiest of excuses. The Kelo decision was in favor of Pfizer, which planned to build a $240 million research facility next door. Now, Pfizer has scotched the project, and the neighborhood has been razed for nothing.

    I’m not sure how much eminent domain has been used against the Standing Rock community, but I know it has been used for sections of the Keystone XL pipeline already. There is a threat in Georgia that the state will allow Kinder Morgan, a publicly traded company, to use eminent domain for its 200+ mile Palmetto Pipeline. Southern Company, which has a virtual monopoly on power in much of the Southeast, has just given Kinder Morgan $1.5 billion to help it out. This is the same Southern Company that is building two new nuclear power plants upriver from me and is experiencing billions in cost overruns, even while many are saying the power won’t be needed.

    I could go on, but should probably put this on my own blog. Fact is, the president-elect wants to increase the use of eminent domain. I contend the entire US was founded on the sanctity of property rights, which is diametrically opposed to the native settlers’ traditions. If the government doesn’t respect property rights, why do people still pay taxes?

    A final note: Howard Zinn’s landmark book, “A People’s History of the United States,” presents an educational but unflattering look at how the US government has violated every treaty it made with Native Americans since the beginning. of European colonization.

    1. Thank you, Katharine. I really appreciate your detailed response. You clearly know more about the topic of eminent domain than anyone I know. And you’re very astute to point out the internal contradiction of building a culture on property rights but then simultaneously overriding those property rights when the interests of business or government find it expedient to do so. Hypocrisy is endemic in this culture, and it goes along with so many other forms of corruption that cause damage to our communities and our world. Thank you again.

      1. Well said. I appreciate your supportive response. Here in Savannah, our new mayor is part of the good ole boy network that is dominated by real estate developers, brokers, and agents, as well as their government contractor friends. Everyone is so strung out on overhead and debt that they are desperate for income, but all they know how to do is build buildings, like schools. They are not so good at maintaining what they have or in managing the public assets once the buildings are up.

        It’s probably similar to other communities that way. They are pushing the eminent domain issue, and they will probably succeed. It seems people can rationalize anything they want to do.

    2. Thank you, Katherine, for mentioning eminent domain. I live in Virginia where we currently are fighting against our own proposed pipeline that would connect WV and NC slicing through our pristine mountains. Eminent domain was clearly designed by large corporations (and then peddled and sold to politicians) to stay in control and bulldoze over the average person who is unlikely to have the funds to fight a court battle against the corporate robbers.

  3. Great post! I feel the sme way about Australia Day which is January 26th, a month after Christmas . We celebrate the founding of Modern Australia by Captin Cook-usually with a barbie- and forget what it means to our Ingenous peiples who call it Survival Day.

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s always difficult for me to express my reservations about this holiday because of how strongly so many people feel about it. The slightest inkling of critical thought is enough to turn most people into raving xenophobes. Thank you for the thoughtful response.

  4. Thanks for a well-written slice of white settlement history,in this country, the kind we’re not going to read about in our high schools or general media outlets. You’re right, the honorable thing to do at this point is to stand up for the Standing Rock protestors– this destruction of our lands and native populations has been going on for far too long. Not only that, enjoy your holiday for its friends and family and… pecan pie!

    1. Thank you! I totally agree, and I wish there were more I could do to assist those native communities struggling to resist corporate encroachment. In the meantime, however, I’ll still be enjoying more than my fair share of pecan pie.

  5. HI agree wholeheartedly. I like the meal and the family get-together. but not what stands behind it. It is terrible what we do to others. Reservations are little better than concentration camps with genocide in mind. Australians also mistreat the aborigines, etc., etc.

  6. This is one of the best descriptions of the history between the pilgrims and the Indians, and Standing Rock is a stark reminder of it It serves to show that we are still dismissing the natives. I am an ESL elementary teacher, and I couldn’t tell the Thanksgiving story in the glossy Disney fashion that I was taught as a child. It was awkward, discussing the positives and ending with “and then the pilgrims stole their land and enslaved or murdered them”. But, I think history needs to be told accurately. I guess we can all just celebrate it as a day to be thankful for what we have, and to remember NOT to repeat history as some people are doing now. It could also be renamed pecan pie day lol.

    1. Haha, I like the last idea you have. I’ve taken to calling it Turkey Day informally, since that’s a more accurate description of the primary association most people have with it. And I totally agree that the goal of any history lesson should be, at least in part, to learn where our ancestors screwed up and correct our behavior to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Learning is where it all starts.

  7. Reblogged this on VIRTUAL BORSCHT and commented:
    Worth reading and raising awareness about colonialism. Remains so true in land ownership and the ownership of history Just think about how Ukrainians have been devastated by Russian imperialism, especially today when we commemorate genocide by starvation.

  8. Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday (well I don’t like most holidays in the US as I find them commercial atrocities) for the reason you state above, but also because I find it a time of gluttony in the US. As we are a country of obese people and our healthcare system (I was a paramedic/EMT for 20 years) is breaking in large part due to cardiovascular disease, I find it ironic that one of the most celebrated holidays revolves around how much food everyone eats. I find this sad and when you combine it with the given state of affairs of the native people today, it’s hard for me to really ‘give thanks’ on that day. Rather I try hard to be a thankful person most days for the things I can be thankful for, although some days it’s tough…I don’t mean to be offensive to anyone here, but I just took so many ill people on my ambulance over the years, our country needs to pay more attention to this epidemic.

  9. Great post. I’ve been writing about African colonialism lately and no matter where in the world the Europeans colonized it was always devastating and continues to be in so many ways.

  10. I think that it is good to have a day of Thanks. However, It seems that we should also need a day of Repentance to own up to our historical sins of cruelty and injustice motivated by greed as well as cultural imperialism and misguided notions of white supremacy. We need to achieve both economic justice and racial and religious harmony in todays world. Obviously, some form of atonement is necessary if we are to move forward to a global culture of peace, freedom, love and creativity. Then we would truly have something to be thankful for. Great article. Thank you.

  11. Nice post. I feel similar about Thanksgiving. I felt guilty “celebrating” a genocide that’s been going on for more than five centuries. I visited and ate dinner with family many times, but made other plans many times also. Eventually, I stopped completely. This year I spent Thanksgiving at the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC.

    Many family members don’t understand, but I’ve made peace with that. I don’t understand following a dogmatic religion like Capitalism that blatantly disregards the well being of the majority of life on the planet. So I go my own way.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble, but your story inspired me to tell my little story. Thanks for a cool post.


  12. This was a very thoughtful piece. Thanks for connecting the dots. Sad how we’ve never kept our promises. Native American Lives Matter. Why should they have an adulterated water supply for the sake of corporate profit. Is this what will Make America Great Again? Huh.

    1. I totally agree. It’s wrong on so many levels, but sadly it’s also incredibly commonplace. That’s why it’s so necessary to stand in solidarity with each other. 👍👍

  13. Really great and considerate post Mark! I’m in Australia and Australia Day is coming up at the end of the month, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I enjoyed reading this!

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