By Ward Churchill
Thanksgiving is the day the United States celebrates the fact that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony successfully avoided starvation during the winter of 1620-21.
But from an American Indian perspective, what is it we’re supposed to be so thankful for?
Does anyone really expect us to give thanks for the fact that soon after the Pilgrim Fathers regained their strength, they set out to dispossess and exterminate the very Indians who had fed them that first winter?
Are we to express our gratitude for the colonists’ 1637 massacre of the Pequots at Mystic, Conn., or their rhetoric justifying the butchery by comparing Indians to “rats and mice and swarms of lice”?
Or should we be joyous about the endless series of similar slaughters that followed: at St. Francis (1759), Horseshoe Bend (1814), Bad Axe (1833), Blue Water (1854), Sand Creek (1864), Marias River (1870), Camp Robinson (1878) and Wounded Knee (1890), to name only the worst?
Should we be thankful for the scalp bounties paid by every English colony — as well as every U.S. state and territory in the lower 48 — for proof of the deaths of individual Indians, including women and children?
How might we best show our appreciation of the order issued by Lord Jeffrey Amherst in 1763, requiring smallpox-infested items be given as gifts to the Ottawas so that “we might extirpate this execrable race”?
Is it reasonable to assume that we might be jubilant that our overall population, numbering perhaps 15 million at the outset of the European invasion, was reduced to less than a quarter-million by 1890?
Maybe we should be glad the “peaceful settlers” didn’t kill the rest of us outright. But they didn’t really need to, did they? By 1900, they already had 98 percent of our land. The remaining Indians were simply dumped in the mostly arid and unwanted locales, where it was confidently predicted that we’d shortly die off altogether, out of sight and mind of the settler society.
We haven’t died off yet, but we comprise far and away the most impoverished, malnourished and disease-ridden population on the continent today. Life expectancy on many reservations is about 50 years; that of Euroamericans more than 75.
We’ve also endured a pattern of cultural genocide during the 20th century. Our children were processed for generations through government boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian” in every child’s consciousness and to replace Native traditions with a “more enlightened” Euroamerican set of values and understandings.
Should we feel grateful for the disastrous self-concept thereby fostered within our kids?
Are we to be thankful that their self-esteem is still degraded every day on cable television by a constant bombardment of recycled Hollywood Westerns and television segments presenting Indians as absurd and utterly dehumanized caricatures?
Should we tell our children to find pride in the sorts of insults to which we are subjected to as a matter of course: Tumbleweeds cartoons, for instance, or the presence of Chief Wahoo and the Redskins in professional sports?
Does anybody really believe we should feel honored by such things, or by place names like Squaw Valley and Squaw Peak? “Squaw,” after all, is the Onondaga word for female genitalia. The derogatory effect on Native women should be quite clear.
About three-quarters of all adult Indians suffer alcoholism and/or other forms of substance abuse. This is not a “genetic condition.” It is a desperate, collective attempt to escape our horrible reality since “America’s Triumph.”
It’s no mystery why Indians don’t observe Thanksgiving. The real question is why do you feast rather than fast on what should be a national day of mourning and atonement.
Before digging into your turkey and dressing on Nov. 24, you might wish to glance in a mirror and see if you can come up with an answer.
Ward Churchill was professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1990 to 2007. He’s the author of “A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present” (City Lights Books, 1998) and “Struggle For the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Expropriation in Contemporary North America” (Common Courage Press, 1992).