The Truth of American Thanksgiving

I have been thinking and writing about Thanksgiving for many years on Transition Times. Waking up to the deep hypocrisy of this American holiday was part of my own process of mental decolonization, unlearning the indoctrination of my conventional American education. With each passing year, it’s good to see more public acknowledgment of the truth of how the early settlers of this country treated the native people they found here.

The myth of sharing a bounteous table may have been true on the Indian side: early accounts of Native-European interactions often show the Europeans reacting with amazement at the generosity of their Native hosts. Without a doubt, the Indians helped the Pilgrims and other early colonists survive by sharing food, seeds and knowledge.

 

History tells us how this generosity was repaid. It’s true that some of the cultural and physical genocide was inadvertent, as alcohol and smallpox were let loose on a defenseless population. But as time went on and more settlers arrived, all greedy for land, the violence and cruelty increased. When you read about the massacres of entire villages of Native people in Massachusetts, New York, and throughout New England; or the Cherokee Trail of Tears; or the heartrending massacres that occurred throughout the West…it’s easy to understand why Native Americans today consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning rather than celebration.

 

My complicated feelings about this holiday have only deepened over the years, as I’ve become more aware of the huge sacrifices that undergird the comforts and pleasures that I might want to give thanks for on Thanksgiving Day.

Let’s take food as an example. I am thankful for the markets that are bursting with food at this time of year. I am thankful for the delicious meals I will be enjoying at the tables of family and friends.

And yet I am aware of the holocaust of turkeys that occurs to satisfy American appetites on Thanksgiving. For most Americans, the traditional Thanksgiving side dishes of sweet potatoes, cornbread and stuffing will be cooked with conventionally farmed vegetables and grains—meaning that billions of beneficial microbes and insects were destroyed to bring them to our table, with the costs reverberating up the food chain as the toxic wastes of industrial agriculture flow into the ground waters and rivers, and the loss of insects devastates the birds, bats and other creatures who depend on them.

This is just one example of many I could give of the way the contemporary American lifestyle is based on a violent, unsustainable foundation. If you peel back the glamorized façade of American Thanksgiving, what you see behind it is a bleak industrial landscape, a place of poverty, ill health and unhappiness. It is no accident people are turning to drugs—whether alcohol, cannabis or opioids—to escape from it all. It’s no accident that the suicide rate keeps rising in our “home of the brave, land of the free.”

 

The Thanksgiving holiday is an extreme version of the whitewashing of American history, and the willful ignorance and denial of all the damage that our vaunted American lifestyle has wreaked on the world. Each of us who sees beyond the façade has a choice to make: we can continue to maintain a complicit silence and go along with the destructive flow; or we can speak up and share our perspectives with others.

Obviously I am choosing the latter path, in my own small way here on Transition Times. No, I won’t be making speeches at my family’s Thanksgiving table. I truly believe, with the great Audre Lorde, that guilt helps no one. Go ahead and enjoy your turkey and stuffing.

But as you tuck into your Thanksgiving meal this year, be aware of the true costs of our American lifestyle. Don’t take the ease and comforts of the industrial agriculture system for granted. Know how fragile our life support systems are, in this time of ever-increasing climate disruption.

There may come a time, in the not-too-distant future, when we Eur-Americans will turn again, in desperate need, to the wisdom of the indigenous people of this land. We will give thanks, then, that they held on to the ancient knowledge of how to survive in the old ways: how to hunt and gather and farm sustainably, in harmony with the other creatures who inhabit this Earth.

This Thanksgiving, I honor and give thanks to the indigenous people of Turtle Island, who are so often on the frontlines of resistance; who are too often victims of violence and abuse; but who still—indomitably, stubbornly, powerfully—stand tall and proud as crucial wisdom keepers, holding the spiritual, philosophical and practical keys to a thriving future for humans on Earth.

May Americans come to honor and respect the precious legacy embodied in the resilient, wise Native peoples of this land. May we give thanks for their great generosity of spirit, symbolized in the American Thanksgiving story. May we Eur-Americans learn, with humility and compassion, to live in harmony with all others in our Earth community.

Namaste.

 

Wisdom-Lessons-Cover-MaryLyons-FRONT copy

If you are looking for contemporary Native American wisdom, I recommend this book, which I was privileged to midwife into the world through Green Fire Press. Available wherever fine books are sold.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Diane Husic

     /  November 28, 2019

    Thanks Jennifer. I have been thinking a lot about the distortions of history that we were taught especially after having listened to this piece. https://whyy.org/episodes/the-real-history-of-thanksgiving/?fbclid=IwAR2jqflF-90mjS-K_DejLqJc_gCQY5gLzgcVjaVWJHFI6hs1-OrCoE9yiaE

    I am not celebrating today, but rather preparing to head to COP25. Increasingly, the indigenous voices are listened to there. While I don’t think we can completely “solve” climate change at the international level, these annual meetings do keep the issue front and center for many in the private and public sector. And for the students we bring along, the meetings are a fantastic classroom for learning about the complex global problems, including inequity,

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  November 28, 2019

      How wonderful to be able to attend COP25 with students, Diane! I am teaching a new course next semester, “Narrating the Anthropocene,” which will look at all the different ways we are telling ourselves the story of what is happening now, on the personal, political and planetary levels. The UN is certainly a big player in that narration process! Have a good trip–may the world come to its senses SOON on climate action!

      Reply
  2. Diane Husic

     /  November 28, 2019

    What a great theme for a course! Love the title. This will be year #11 for taking students to the COPs. It is always crazy, especially this year with the quick change of venue from Santiago to Madrid. And sadly, our campus largely fails to see the value in our participation. Much of the rest of the world has come to its senses; the U.S., well, not so much. I am quite certain we will become the marginalized voices at the international level on many issues.

    Reply

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