History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery. ~ William Carlos Williams
When my daughter was four years old, she brought a book home from preschool about Squanto and the First Thanksgiving. It was a beautiful book, with illustrations depicting the national mythos of the holiday: Pilgrims in black hats and buckled shoes, Squanto teaching them to plant and harvest corn, and a feast celebrating prosperity and peace. There is some truth to this mythos—Puritans who landed in Cape Cod really did feast with members of the Wampanoag tribe, including Tisquantum (also known as Squanto, who was living with the Wampanoag after losing his own tribe, the Patuxet, to disease). And the Puritans did have a relationship with Tisquantum before the feast. But our history often skips some very important pieces of this story.
For example, Tisquantum was captured by white settlers and sold into slavery three times before he ever met the Puritans—that’s why he knew English and could communicate with them after they stole some Wampanoag supplies in their hunting expeditions. And the peace between white settlers and the Wampanoag only lasted a generation. Today, while white Americans read pretty books about Squanto before celebrating Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag mark the day as a reminder of betrayal, and a call to inner strength. Many Native Americans don’t celebrate the day at all, and refuse to participate in the cultural rituals surrounding it.
For most people who celebrate Thanksgiving, the holiday is more about the modern incarnation (which Abraham Lincoln created as a day to celebrate blessings in 1863) than its association with Native Americans and Puritans. I have many wonderful memories of the holiday spent with my family—good food, laughter, love. The holiday is my father’s favorite, and I treasure it for that reason, along with some seriously kick-ass sweet potatoes that you wish you were eating right now. So, yes, Thanksgiving is a time to count blessings, and I’m grateful for both the blessings and the opportunity to appreciate them.
But along with our blessings, we need to recognize that white America is living with a form of national amnesia, molded by revisionist history, that perpetuates injustice and racism against Native Americans by pretending they (and racist practices against them) only occupy the space of long ago and far away.
Here’s some of what Native Americans are dealing with right now:
- Sports Teams: Racist images and names for sports teams such as the Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins, and conversations about these names that treat racism as if it is a matter of opinion appropriate for white debate, rather than an oppressive and repressive societal force that must be addressed.
- Advertising: Racist advertisements that depict Native Americans in stereotypical, demeaning ways. Racism against Native Americans in advertising is as American as apple pie and objectification—both historically and, you guessed it, just in time for Thanksgiving 2013.
- Politics: Oh, the politics here are unbelievable, except that they are so very believable. From battles over protections for Native American women in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to undermining the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) via the “Baby Veronica” case to the continued theft and abuse of tribally-owned land, Native Americans are routinely treated unjustly by American courts. And that’s putting it mildly.
These are just the examples I can come up with off the top of my head—racism against Native Americans is so ingrained in our national consciousness that many Americans don’t even see it, much less discuss it or fight to change it. From the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee to Thanksgiving and football, our history with the people who lived here first—and who live here still—is one of pain and persecution, not peace and prosperity.
These wounds are ancient, and they run deep. Until we name the wounds and claim their creation as our history, we cannot heal them. And heal them we must, for a country that pretends violence is discovery is suffering from a very dangerous form of self-delusion. It is time to awaken from our national amnesia, re-learn our history, and change that which we have refused to acknowledge. Anything less not only ignores the past—it perpetuates it.