Thursday, November 27, 2003

10. Thanksgiving is not for everyone

On November 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed the bill establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. I always wondered if the Indians celebrated Thanksgiving. I found the answer of that question to be, "not exactly."

On Thanksgiving Day, 1970, the United American Indians of New England organized the day as A National Day of Mourning for Indians. Earlier that day, Frank James, a Wampanoag leader, was asked to speak at a state dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing. The content of the speech he had prepared was, however, deemed inappropriate, and his speech rewritten. He wouldn't accept the revised speech and left the dinner- before speaking to a small group on Cole's Hill, overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the replica of the Mayflower. The plaque on Cole's Hill commemorating the event reads, "Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at commemorate a National Day of Mourning... Many natives do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European Settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. ...It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."

Only the superciliousness of Americans or the lack of knowledge of American history would anyone ever have the audacity to ask a Native American to make an "appreciative and complimentary" speech celebrating the anniversary of an event that led to the oppression of his own people. Frank James' original speech noted, "It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts." That, "this is a time of celebration for you- celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look upon what happened to my People." Exactly what did they expect him to say? Malcolm X's remark of the African American experience in America would have been just as appropriate- "We did not land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us."

If Thanksgiving is to be a day of gratitude for the good fortune bestowed upon us in this country then we should note that we have a lot to be thankful for. If that gratitude is extended to the God of your choosing, one certainly has that right. However, only remorse should be considered of the relations with the Indians, and one should be appalled at the misrepresentation of our early history in this country as depicted in textbooks. Early settlers were not pure and righteous; they certainly did not act in a manner even scarcely resembling those of the Christian teachings. Americans, especially the early Americans who risked their lives in crossing the ocean, have always acted on behalf of self-interest- such as money, land, and freedom.

However, the argument can be made that while this was the Indians' land, that war was not in any way unusual. Europeans, in fact most of civilization, had been at war for centuries. And those who suffered defeat lost land, wealth and power. In some ways the Indians were fortunate, having North America all to themselves, to avoid the conflicts occurring on other continents. As despicable as it is, the act of war, of taking land and possessions, making treaties and breaking treaties was the way of the world (and still is). It's not intended to be a defense; rather it is a sad fact.

But as sad as it is, it is deplorable to hide from the truth - to censor textbooks, to create myths. To depict the Indians as anything other than a race of people trying to defend their land, by the means available to them is simply not fair. They were savages no more than we were. We were, and are still, as idealistic and ritualistic. And they too, were no less entitled to the God(s) of their choosing.

In this manner, to celebrate a holiday in which a picture is painted so far from the truth is indefensible. Even if there was an initial feast (and there are many different stories), the history between the groups of people to follow is so tumultuous that the moment has lost its value. The act should be dropped. We can celebrate through appreciation this great country of ours- we should just have the respect to leave our "dinner guests" out of it.


  1. I like Thanksgiving Day and that is my favourite holiday of the year.