Settler colonialism is based not on giving thanks but on the taking of Native life and land
Thanksgiving is a colonial holiday meant to erase the ruthlessness of English settlers. In a way, Thanksgiving is the perfect American holiday: It is based on the erasure of Indigenous peoples, promotes a false vision of peaceful cooperation between nations, and has now become an excuse to indulge in the spectacles of hyper-consumption and football.
The historical record is murky about exactly when and where the first “Thanksgiving” was held. Most Americans say it was 1621 in what is now Massachusetts, when a group of Pilgrims and Indians gathered to celebrate the first harvest after the arrival of the Mayflower. Some point to when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a federal holiday in 1863 as a way of reconciling communities during the Civil War. Both of those dates obscure the 1637 massacre of more than 700 Pequot men, women, children and elders in what is now Connecticut. The state governor celebrated that massacre with a Thanksgiving feast. There is a good case to be made that Thanksgiving is in fact a celebration of that genocide.
I have been thinking about the ruthlessness of this holiday and of what it conceals. Settlers are ruthless. Capitalism is ruthless. Patriarchy is ruthless. All of these were forced upon Indigenous communities without our consent. “Ruthless” comes from the old English word “rue” (to feel regret). Ruthlessness means having no regrets.
Joseph M. Pierce is associate professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890-1910 (SUNY Press, 2019) and co-editor of Políticas del amor: Derechos sexuales y escrituras disidentes en el Cono Sur (Cuarto Propio, 2018). He is also one of the editors of the Syllabus project “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Citizenship, and DNA Testing,” published by Critical Ethnic Studies. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.