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Pilgrim's Progress

Why Christians Should Not Celebrate Thanksgiving

Dinner Conversation

Approximately 1.5 million Native Americans and Alaskan Natives live on designated reservations in the United States today. All but a few of these reservations are plagued with poverty, unemployment, homelessness, lack of medical care, and insufficient educational resources. The per capita earning averages $4,500, with unemployment approaching 70 percent. 50% of Native American reservation homes have no phones and 1/5 of the homes lack complete kitchen facilities.

In 1907, Susan La Fleshe Picotte, the first Native American woman doctor, wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Her letter described the health conditions and needs of her tribe, the Omahas. She began her letter with, “If you knew the conditions…” Imagine how it would sadden Dr. Picotte to know that, in over 100 years, things have not changed.  Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community

When the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center conducted research last year examining the prevalence and realities of the trafficking of Native American girls in Minnesota, they unearthed a long silent crisis afflicting the health and well-being of thousands of Native girls and women. The report, released last fall and entitled “Shattered Hearts: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls,” describes the experiences of girls involved in prostitution and recommends steps for action. But perhaps most importantly, it also contextualizes the unique vulnerability that Native women face, years before they are ever trafficked.

The MIWRC report defines a “social ecology” that places the individual at the center of a dizzying orbit of social influence, from the national down to the family. This influence grows out of a context, and the report identifies policies that have shaped a traumatic history.

In the process of developing trade and military relationships with American Indian villages, early British colonists viewed the sexual and marital norms of Native communities through their own ethnocentric lens. As a result, they interpreted Native women’s sexual and reproductive freedom to be proof of their promiscuity and depravity … These attitudes justified colonists’ assaults on Native women and Native land.

Following the establishment of the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress redefined the status of American Indian people, declaring that they were wards of the U.S. government and citizens of ‘dependent nations,’ stripping them of their rights to their land, to self-governance, and to negotiating as independent nations. As the new nation expanded westward, the U.S. government adopted formal extermination policies to clear Native-occupied land for settlement. Native women were primary targets of these policies due to their reproductive ability to assure the continuance of their people.

Exploitation of A Nation: Children outside the Indian boarding school at Cantonment, Okla., c. 1909
Image: Library of Congress

Forced Migration
The relocation of Indian people to remote rural reservations by the U.S. Army, where they were forced to depend on the U.S. government for all of their basic needs.

The removal of Native children from their homes, often forcibly, to attend government-funded residential boarding schools where they were severely punished for speaking their native language, pressured to adopt the ‘superior’ values and behaviors of the dominant Christian society, and subjected to physical and sexual abuse by school teachers and administrators.

Forced Sterilization/Eugenics
The sterilization of American Indian women and girls as young as 15 in an effort to control Native populations. By 1975, an estimated 25,000 American Indian women and girls had been given hysterectomies by Indian Health Services physicians without their consent, and sometimes without their knowledge during appendectomies and other surgeries.

The lack of a holistic, collective recognition of genocidal policy towards Native Americans is an astonishing phenomenon in an age so infused with talk about social justice. As a nation, the United States has never come together to acknowledge the atrocities inflicted on Native peoples in the fullness of all of their consequences.

According to the report, when a dominant society refuses to recognize a people’s grief and losses as legitimate, the result is sadness, anger, and shame, feeling helpless and powerless, struggles with feelings of inferiority, and difficulty with self-identity. This negatively impacts interpersonal relationships and Native peoples’ sense of themselves as sacred beings.

A Perfect Storm: Behind the Trafficking of Minnesota’s Native American Girls

One indication of moral progress

in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."

Thomas Jefferson — president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" — was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them."

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

Robert Jensen, AlterNet. Posted November 23, 2005

In 1614, a band of English explorers

had landed in the vicinity of Massachusetts Bay. When they returned home, they took with them Native slaves they had captured, and left smallpox behind. By the time the Puritan pilgrims sailed the Mayflower into southern Massachusetts Bay, entire nations of New England Natives were already extinct, having been totally exterminated by smallpox.

The Puritans were religious radicals being driven into exile out of England. Since their story is well known, I will not repeat it here. They settled and built a colony which they called the "Plymouth Plantation", near the ruins of a former Native village of the Pawtuxet Nation. Only one Pawtuxet had survived, a man named Squanto, who had spent time as a slave to the English. Since he understood the language and customs of the Puritans, he taught them to use the corn growing wild from the abandoned fields of the village, taught them to fish, and about the foods, herbs and fruits of this land. Squanto also negotiated a peace treaty between the Puritans and the Wampanoag Nation, a very large Native nation which totally surrounded the new Plymouth Plantation. Because of Squanto's efforts, the Puritans enjoyed almost 15 years of peaceful harmony with the surrounding Natives, and they prospered.

At the end of their first year, the Puritans held a great feast following the harvest of their new farming efforts. The feast honored Squanto and their friends, the Wampanoags. The feast was followed by 3 days of "thanksgiving" celebrating their good fortune. This feast produced the image of the first Thanksgiving that we all grew up with as children. However, things were doomed to change.

Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue. The Puritans came from the belief of individual needs and prosperity, and had no concept of tribal living, or group sharing. It was clear that these heathen savages had no claim on the land because it had never been subdued, cultivated and farmed in the European manner, and there were no fences or other boundaries marked. The land was clearly "public domain", and there for the taking. This attitude met with great resistance from the original Puritans who held their Native benefactors in high regard. These first Puritan settlers were summarily excommunicated and expelled from the church.

With Bible passages in their hands to justify their every move, the Puritans began their march inland from the seaside communities. Joined by British settlers, they seized land, took the strong and young Natives as slaves to work the land, and killed the rest. When they reached the Connecticut Valley around 1633, they met a different type of force. The Pequot Nation, very large and very powerful, had never entered into the peace treaty negotiated by Squanto as had other New England Native nations. When two slave raiders were killed by resisting Natives, the Puritans demanded that the killers be turned over. The Pequot refused. What followed was the Pequot War, the bloodiest of the Native wars in the northeast.

An army of over 200 settlers was formed, joined by over 1,000 Narragansett warriors. Because of the lack of fighting experience, and the vast numbers of the fierce Pequot warriors, Commander John Mason elected not to stage an open battle. Instead, the Pequot were attacked, one village at a time, in the hours before dawn. Each village was set on fire with its sleeping Natives burned alive. Women and children over 14 were captured to be sold as slaves; other survivors were massacred. The Natives were sold into slavery in The West Indies, the Azures, Spain, Algiers and England; everywhere the Puritan merchants traded. The slave trade was so lucrative that boatloads of 500 at a time left the harbors of New England.

In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries. This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of "thanksgiving" to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. This was the 2nd Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.

Julia White (with Terye Gonzalez, Apache), Ishgooda.Org

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