This weekend is American Thanksgiving. Much like in Canada, it’s a festival filled with relaxing and spending time enjoying the company of loved ones. Beyond the crazy travelling, the turkey, and the fall colours lies a terrible disregard for what Thanksgiving is all about. Though thought to be based on several myths about indigenous peoples helping European settlers, the holiday is an anniversary of a great feast in Massachusetts. The strong currents of “Indian” culture are still significant in celebrations, and I wish to briefly talk about this in my short post today.
As earlier mentioned, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. In North America, this holiday celebrates the harvest season and the transition to winter. Though documents about the “First Thanksgiving” are sketchy at best, the holiday depicts a sense of harmony between the inhabitants of the so-calledOld and New Worlds. Artwork in the centuries since has focused on expressing sentiments of goodwill and co-operation. While this may have been the case in the seventeenth century, over successive centuries the relationship between settlers and indigenous people turned into perhaps one of the gravest histories of genocide.
For the most part, the nationbuilding efforts of American education and media have largely omitted the incredible details of the shocking treatment of indigenous groups in the United States. As the United States has become more cosmopolitan it has struggled with various others. The construct of settler/native has been replaced with white Americans as native and immigrants as new settlers. This is very well summed up in the 1996 Simpsons episode about a fictitious“Proposition 24”.
In Canada, we very often castigate Americans for their blatantly genocidal actions. There is a greater awareness of the genocide here in Canada because there is no American nationalist ideology that has to protect a certain historical discourse. However, it’s often forgotten that our “Indians” have been treated with similar hostility, and likewise the story has been largely covered up or forgotten.
While in the United States war, disease, and displacement were the primary weapons used by the federal government, Canada employed a more benign-looking but equally sinister system. Canada’s numerous native groups were broken apart by geography and generation, with youth taken away to go to Residential Schools, formally introduced in 1876 and operating, shockingly enough, until 1996. In order to assimilate indigenous Canadians, the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, federal, and provincial governments forcibly removed children from their communities where they were sent to learn Western Christian tradition and learn to speak English or French.
The damage to hundreds of cultures was, and still is, totally overwhelming. The system, paired with other attacks on indigenous cultures (such as creating reserves and introducing private property) created cycles of substance abuse, violence, suicide, and other social ills. I witnessed first hand the devastation when I worked on the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, a programme introduced by the Federal Government in order to give reparations to survivors of the trauma. I talked to people who were sexually abused, who had lost several loved ones to suicide, and who had substance abuse problems. What these individuals all had in common was that they were incredibly impoverished financially and culturally, living in total dependency of government funds. It was heartbreaking to witness, and I felt powerless knowing how structural and pervasive these problems were. What’s more, I had studied history in my BA and this was my first real look at the residential school system.
All this said, we have forgotten what to be thankful for. I think it’s important that people reflect during Thanksgiving that the great society we claim to have is based on generations of exploitation and forgetfulness. Next Thanksgiving, remember.