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Politics A short history of Native American persecution on Thanksgiving

Nov. 23, 2017
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After a grueling year, the advent of Thanksgiving feels like a welcome respite from the horrors of the world. It's hard to imagine anything more wholesome than Thanksgiving as we know it: an opportunity to gather round the table with your loved ones and practice gratitude. Even the apocryphal Thanksgiving story is a picture of love and acceptance. You know the one—about the European exiles who fled religious persecution on the Mayflower and the friendly Native Americans who shared their harvest with these starving newcomers, these strangers in a strange land. 

Only, of course, that's not how it happened. Even ignoring the factual inaccuracies of the tale we were all taught in school, this story elides crucial context: by 1621, the year of the storied harvest, smallpox borne by Europeans had already wiped out many of the Native Americans living along the Eastern seaboard. As a matter of fact, by the time the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, there was already a village there—an vacant village, emptied of its native inhabitants by plague.

In the years that followed, European predation upon native populations sharpened from smallpox to slaughter. After conflicts like the 1637 Pequot War, which entailed the massacre of the Pequot people, local settlers would hold days of "thanksgiving" in celebration of their brutality. (The designation of the 1621 feast as the "first Thanksgiving" remains much-contested: many historians argue that the aftermath of this 1637 conflict is the true forebear of the holiday as we know it.)

Throughout the history of the United States, the persecution of Native Americans has been marbled into the story of our nation's expansion and development. Settlers continued to steal land from native populations in order to expand the European American presence, with the process culminating in the series of forced removals during 1830-1850 that made up the Trail of Tears. While white Americans in the 19th century were sitting down to late-November feasts, the Cherokee nation was forced to leave their homes behind and march hundreds of miles westward to a land they had never known—with thousands of Cherokees perishing along the way.

Predatory capitalism has continued to weaken the Native populations that are left. Christian missionaries have made a legacy of preying upon Indian reservations, and the inhabitants of these reservations are often deprived of legal authority over their land. The forced sterilization of Native American women remained common practice until the 1970s, and to this day Native Americans remain the ethnic group most often killed in police encounters. And last year, as the nation prepared for Thanksgiving, the Sioux of North Dakota were beaten and assaulted with water cannons for daring to assert their right to their land.

Still, Native Americans continue to lay claim to their own traditions. For the past 47 years, descendants of the Wampanoag tribe that broke bread with the Pilgrims in 1621 have gathered in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate a National Day of Mourning in a different kind of late-harvest tradition—one that asserts: We are here.