I don’t know how public school teachers are handling this today, but when I was a child, the folklore associated with the Thanksgiving holiday fostered in my mind a harmonious image of friendship and feasting between the hungry, struggling pilgrims and the kindly, generous Indians. What was, of course, overlooked in the teachings and celebrations of Thanksgiving and was totally absent from any lesson I ever learned in a classroom was the true and tragic history of the majority of interactions between in-coming Europeans and the Native Peoples of this land.
The plain truth is that the the European conquest of the United States involved the unintentional genocide of an estimated 90% of America’s first inhabitants who were lost to disease and that the remnant population of Indian Peoples from East to West were then confronted by newcomers whose hearts will filled with racism and greed. The remaining 10% of the vast original population was further reduced by intentional genocide in the form of repeated massacres and the Indians who survived this lost nearly all of their original homeland when they were forced to live on reservations that represented only a tiny fraction of their former lands so that the newcomers could have everything else.
This rarely told and truthful account of what really happened in America sits in odd company with the cute cardboard cutout pictures of quaintly garbed pilgrims and rosy Indians having supper together that have been sold in stationery shops for decades as Thanksgiving decorations.
And yet, there is truth in those images, too, for the Spaniards, Dutch, English and other conquistadores left written records of their first encounters with Indians on both coasts, recording again and again the generous welcome they received nearly everywhere they landed. With few exceptions, Native Peoples lived by matchless standards of hospitality and brotherly love. Even the trail of broken treaties shows the Indian side of things – shows Peoples who were still willing to extend trust and friendship despite all they had suffered and lost. To me, in reading these accounts, it is clear that most Indians attributed to white men a level of decency and respectability that, tragically, these people did not generally merit. The kindly welcome and willingness to share on the part of Indians was met with greed, duplicity and violence on the part of the newcomers.
In other words, white folks do not come out looking well in the history of America, and this is precisely why today’s descendents of the pilgrims have so important an opportunity to reflect on the past and vow to do better on a day like Thanksgiving. To remember that on the heels of genocide came the establishment of slavery. 20th and 21st century Americans are first hand witnesses to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, and the recent election of the country’s first black president and the shameful racist reaction by certain sectors has shown us all that racism is still alive in America.
Using skin color as an excuse for why a man should not remain free in his homeland, should not remain free of the bonds of slavery, should not drink from a public fountain, ride the front of the bus, vote or become president is a tactic that has caused so much pain in America. Let Thanksgiving be a day when we confront and denounce this.
It’s not all in the past. American Indians still live in large numbers on those old-time reservations, many of them living in worse poverty than any other group of people in the country. Other groups of Peoples indigenous to these continents, such as Mexicans, have become the new targets of white hatred, in the form of laws like Arizona’s SB 1070. We may be lucky enough to have our first black president, but in the 2012 election, black people ‘mysteriously’ faced some of the longest voting lines anywhere in the country. From cartoons depicting the First Family eating watermelons on the White House lawn to the racist and oft-repeated claims that President Obama isn’t actually an American, our problem with racism is very much in the here and now.
I think it would be good if, on Thanksgiving Day, when so many people get together with loved ones around a communal table, we reflect back on that folksy image of the happy pilgrims and Indians and imbue it with a new meaning…a meaning that honestly confronts racial violence in America’s history and insists that, especially because of the darkness of the past, we must ensure that all people who live here today have an honored seat at the table of mankind. Most especially the descendants of First Peoples whose collective wisdom and goodness surpassed any imported philosophy and most especially the descendants of Africans who were brought here in chains to the land of the free.
We cannot undo the past, but we have the free will to teach love today and in the future. We can teach it honestly in the classroom, in the media and around the Thanksgiving table in our homes and in the hearts of our families. I don’t consider this just an option; I believe it is an imperative, given the truth of our past.
I hope, if you read this, you will spend some time today thinking and talking about America’s history honestly and reflecting on how we can sow love where there has been such hatred. We can mend the country’s ways, one heart at a time.