Many people annually get as stuffed as their turkeys in celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, so much so that it is not just a holiday, but really is (as the etymology implies) one of our Holy Days, almost universally celebrated by Americans. In its sacredness, families get together to (unintentionally?) celebrate one genocide (against Native Americans) by committing another (against turkeys). Can we celebrate in good faith and conscience?
On Thanksgiving Day, we give thanks. We give thanks for being the invader, the exploiter, the dominator, the greedy, the gluttonous, the colonizer, the thief, indeed the genocidaire, rather than on the other side of imperialism's zero-sum murderous game. As Mark Twain points out in his War Prayer, wishing and being thankful for one's own success and victory is, at the very same time, wishing and being thankful for another's defeat and destruction. Do we want to make these kinds of wishes and give these kinds of thanks?
The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran declared that "it is the honor of the murdered that they are not the murderers". Perhaps, but it is a very difficult honor to uphold. Native Americans, at least those who have survived the over 500 year genocidal project, are the poorest ethnic group in the richest country of the world. Each year, a group of Native Americans gather at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving Day to mourn and fast in honor of their people and in memory of what is lost. What do we want to be honored for? What honors are Americans thankful for?
It was once earnestly asked by Native Americans, "Why do you take by force what you can have by love?" Christopher Columbus reports in his personal diary that when he arrived in the Americas he was amazed. The Arawaks, with curiosity and joy, came to greet the people coming off the ships from Europe. The Arawaks (whom Columbus mistakenly thought were Indians) were a peaceful people, by all accounts, willing to share anything they had, offering both emotional kindness and their physical objects. Columbus describes how remarkable these people were. So innocent of weapons and violence, Arawak people would initially reach out their hands to feel the
strange, shiny objects called swords. The Arawaks would only "work" for a few hours a day, "spending" the rest of their time relaxing, socializing, and creating their culture in the ways that people most enjoy. Columbus also tells of how the Arawaks had no "shame", being able to walk around naked or make love whenever they pleased. With the tiny amount of gold on their island, they fashioned jewelry to adorn themselves. As with many other pre-contact indigenous groups, the Arawaks essentially lived in Utopia. Can Americans be thankful for living in a utopian society? Are we thankful for having destroyed one? Should we be grateful for having so many deadly weapons? For being so greedy for gold, both actual and metaphorical?
As Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange is fond of pointing out, Columbus could have done one of a few different things after encountering the Arawaks of whom he was so impressed: (1) Columbus could have quit his travels and lived the rest of his days amongst this remarkable people. In fact, millions of people today spend thousands of dollars and their precious couple of weeks of vacation trying to experience modern conditions resembling these ancient ones. (2) Columbus could also have continued on his journeys, exploring other islands, encountering new peoples, and searching for India and elsewhere with which to trade. While doing so, he could have expanded and developed his writings, perhaps doing valuable ethnographic and comparative sociological research. (3) Another possibility is that Columbus could have rushed back to Europe, declaring the wonders of Arawak society and urging that the best minds of Europe go to visit and study the Arawaks. As a result of doing so, Europeans could have incorporated aspects of Arawak society into their own, if not emulating it altogether. Are we proud of and thankful for our hubris and ethnocentrism?
Of course, Columbus did none of these. Apparently, there was a fourth possibility. With grave implications, Columbus wrote in his diary that with fifty men he could enslave the entire population and capture all their gold. This was no empty boast. The "savage" Arawaks were enslaved, many were tortured, their labor exploited, and their wealth stolen and shipped off to Europe. During this process of imperialist superexploitation, men had their hands chopped off, women had their breasts sliced and their pregnant bellies cut open, babies were thrown into the air, sometimes crashing to the ground and other times being impaled on those strange, shiny swords, presumably all in the name of Christianity, Civilization, and, eventually, Capitalism. The Arawaks were literally exploited to death and they are now extinct, all of them having been killed off through virulent brutality, overwork, and disease. Are Americans thankful they weren't Arawaks? Are we thankful for not being the dehumanized "Other"?
The Pilgrims later came to America to escape religious persecution from the British, apparently in order to commit ethnic and religious persecution against the Native Americans and, later on, others. And this they did, and we in fact continue to do, effectively and mercilessly. At the time of the first Thanksgiving in the 1620s, it was also the dawn of another type of genocide. 1619 marks the first year that human beings were brutally "imported" from Africa to become slaves in America, if they happened to survive the cruel capture and horrific Atlantic crossing. So while Africans were being heartlessly torn away from their homes and families, viciously enslaved and dehumanized, tortured and killed, Native Americans were being attacked and annihilated. By the time that President Lincoln re-invented and instituted the Thanksgiving Day tradition in the early 1860s, the US was fighting its civil war. The US Civil War may have been fought over slavery (and labor more generally), though it was certainly not fought for the slaves (or for laborers). Sadly, there is much, much more to the tragic history of genocide and US complicity. Is it for this legacy that Americans give thanks? Are Americans thankful for the results of racism, sexism, and classism?
At the same time that the US has, by far, the most expensive and powerful military on Earth, it also has a high poverty rate, the largest prison population, a relatively high infant mortality rate, tremendous over-consumption and waste, a stingy and demeaning welfare program, an active capital punishment program, and almost as many privately-owned guns as people. Are Americans proud of US domestic policy? Of supporting murderous policies and programs? Of maintaining deadly discriminatory standards?
There are many reasons to celebrate and Americans have a lot to be thankful for. Genocide should not be one of those things. What are we doing on Thanksgiving Day? We would be appropriately appalled if Germany or Austria were celebrating a Holocaust Memorial Day, where Germans and Austrians got together with their families for dinner on their official day off, joyously remembering the things that are important to them, just as American families
get together for Thanksgiving Day and think of things to be thankful for. (Similar scenarios, just as ugly, could be constructed for white supremacists, rapists, and murderers.) Some activities and events are inappropriate just because of the context in which they occur and the history of suffering they represent. Thanksgiving Day is clearly part of that history. Are Americans thankful for forgetting their own history, for having collective cultural and political amnesia?
We do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something. At the very least, we need to reflect on how and what we feel. We should also review our history and what it means to us and others, while we must rethink our adopted traditions, including our Thanksgiving High Holy Day. My personal (and therefore political!) resolution for the new year is to stop celebrating genocide. American Thanksgiving may be sacred to some, but it's utterly profane to me.
Dan Brook teaches sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and
can be contacted via Brook@california.com