Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, in which exceptionalism and selective amnesia are celebrated. The sick fairy tale obscures the violent foundations of a settler colonial nation.
Tomorrow, in homes across the country, millions of people will cluster around dinner tables and say an obligatory prayer of thanks that they were born free and white in America. They will then stuff their faces with piles of bland food and wash it all down with too much beer and occasional shots of whiskey.
Not long after that, a “weirdo” cousin will comment that Black lives really do matter, at which time alcohol-loosened tongues will unload a blistering, withering, expletive-laced attack on the poor soul. The “weirdo” will put up a fight until reduced to tears and hounded out of the house. The rest of the family will then crow in triumph and celebrate by guzzling more beer and resolving by consensus that the cousin is a “snowflake,” and maybe even a communist.
When all the food has been consumed, those assembled will stumble their way to couches and carpeted floors. Football games will be on the flatscreen, but nobody will be watching because alcohol and the turkey’s tryptophan will induce a collective coma punctuated by long, wet snores and ear-splitting farts. It's an ugly scene.
Ugly scenes involving gluttony are an American tradition. In 1637 white settlers in Connecticut surrounded a Pequot village during the annual Green Corn Dance. The settlers set the village on fire and shot anyone who tried to flee. Hundreds were murdered, and afterwards, the settlers had a grand feast in response to the governor’s call for a day of thanksgiving for the successful massacre.
Much is often made of “American exceptionalism” - and with good reason. A country is exceptional when it refines the art of denial to such a degree that it can annually pig out without any thought given to the fact that such feasts of “thanksgiving” frequently celebrated massacres of indigenous people and other crimes against God and humanity during the early years of settler occupation.
Tragically, the Pequot massacre was only an early event in a protracted process of genocide. Many massacres were to follow, including the mass killing of indigenous women, elders and children in Sand Creek, Colorado by Col. John Chivington and his cavalry brigade. After ripping babies from wombs, smashing the heads of children against trees, and scalping everyone in sight, the soldiers carved the genitalia from women and fastened them to their uniforms and hats as trophies.
The massacres were devastating, but they were not the only settler crimes that had an enduring impact on indigenous populations. Although North American indigenous populations have been present in this hemisphere for thousands of years, after the arrival of settlers they lost nearly 99 percent of their land. The wholesale theft of territory and the displacement of North America’s first nations not only caused contemporaneous harm, but it is the cause of newly discovered injury. A recent study conducted by researchers at Yale, Colorado State University and the University of Michigan concludes that native populations are more vulnerable to climate change because of land loss.
Forced relocation of first nations from their ancestral lands often resulted in settling them in areas that are more vulnerable to climate change hazards like extreme heat and minimal precipitation, and away from valuable subterranean oil and gas. Kyle Whyte, one of the co-authors of the study, explained:
“The reason why tribal nations are located in the places they are is because the U.S. tried to remove them and get them out of the way, so that the U.S. could build this massive industrial economy, that we now know contributes to increased concentrations of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
The consequences are real. As just one example, the Quileute Tribe of western Washington, which once roamed and occupied vast portions of the Olympic Peninsula, was confined in the late 1800s to one square mile next to the Pacific Ocean. Because of climate change, ocean waters have risen and caused the tribe to suffer from repeated floods and tsunamis.
Indigenous people have not suffered without resistance. Their struggles are largely unknown, but they want their land back. The Wiyot, people who lived for centuries on Duluwat Island along the northern coast of California, are a case in point. In 1860, settlers massacred scores of Wiyot women, children, and elders, and set in motion a series of events that resulted in the displacement of the Wiyot from their home, transformation of the island into a shipyard, and eventually abandonment of the island leaving it a wasteland filled with scrap metal and toxic chemicals.
In the year 2000, the Wiyot took a first step toward reclamation by raising enough money to purchase an acre and a half of the island. After continuing agitation, the local municipality returned an additional 40 acres. Finally, in 2015, with the no-strings return of 200 acres, the Wiyot regained full control of the island, and continued their extended project of restoring the ecological health of the land by removing chemicals, batteries, and other contaminants.
Cheryl Seidner, a tribal elder and former Wiyot chairwoman explained: "The island is just one part of our journey. The other part of the journey is walking on the earth and knowing that it is all sacred and that we need to take care of it and watch over it."
In other cases, land has been reclaimed from not only governments, but private parties. The Wyandotte Nation, which was subjected to forced relocation from Ohio to Oklahoma, became the object of Christian redemptive contrition when the United Methodist Church returned Wyandotte land it had held in trust for many years.
The land struggles are not focused solely on land the government considers worthless or expendable, or on property that private parties surrender because of conscience. For example, the NDN Collective engaged in direct action to demand the closing of Mount Rushmore and the return of all public land in the Black Hills to “the original stewards.”
The NDN Collective also partnered with the Movement for Black Lives as part of its “collective liberation” objective. A statement by the organization notes:
“While we are committed to building the collective power of Indigenous people, communities and Nations, we recognize that in that decolonial work, Indigenous liberation is directly tied to Black liberation. While we build our collective power, we do so by standing alongside our Black relatives in their long-held fight for justice.”
This collaboration is noteworthy and fitting because historically there have been important alliances between America’s native populations and enslaved Africans and their descendants. In addition, as part of the Pan-African tradition, Africans born and living in North America have long opposed settler colonialism in Africa – particularly in Southern Africa. So sensitive is the issue of land in Africa that when the late Robert Mugabe commenced efforts to reclaim land from white settlers in Zimbabwe, it triggered a long-term campaign by western powers to demonize the Zimbabwean president and to isolate the country diplomatically and economically. Other African governments got the message and shied away from the land issue, but the African masses have had other ideas and the pressure they have applied on governments has been intense, particularly in South Africa. That country’s ruling party – the African National Congress – is, according to reports, under pressure to pursue expropriation of settler-held land without compensation.
In the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh, the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the perspective of settler colonists throughout the world. That is: “…discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the [indigenous] title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest...” In the Americas, Africa, Australia, and anywhere else indigenous populations fight to reclaim stolen territory, the time is right for a united struggle to extinguish not only the purported “title” to land held by settlers, but to also extinguish the wicked flame of settler colonialism once and for all.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney and the author of the newly published novel: The Negroes of Friends Village. Fancher is a member of the Black Alliance for Peace Africa Team, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of organizations with which he is affiliated. He can be contacted at mfancher[at]comcast.net.