Food for thought: Thanksgiving’s historical and contemporary meaning and significance

Between the beginning of Thanksgiving break and the present time, certain topics are touchy such as the history of the holiday, the Black Lives Matter Movement here in Minneapolis, and the Syrian refugee crises, I want everyone to consider this: America was once a safe haven for European refugees. Whether they were seeking political asylum, escaping debt or religious persecution or seeking riches, Europeans came to America and this became their home. Every time Thanksgiving is celebrated, small children dress up as ‘Indians’ and pilgrims, evaporating Indians into the woods to make way for the pilgrims. America really isn’t a big melting pot, especially for citizens of color. When you sit down for a Thanksgiving meal or any holiday meal, remember the meal is possible because of colonization and has deeply embedded racist and discriminatory biases into society. All of these contemporary issues we face today as a nation are tied to our history of colonization and treatment towards peoples of color.

There is history after the first Thanksgiving dinner; the Indians didn’t evaporate into the woods for the new settlers. There were three main groups of immigrants coming to America at the time: the French, English and Spanish. America was divided and colonized by each group. Prior to these interactions there were entire populations of peoples who were ethnically distinct; they had different languages, cultural traditions and customs. Whenever the Spanish, French, and English came over, these separate groups of people were placed under the one-word umbrella of Indian. I want to clarify that Native Americans can be referred to as American Indian but it is not the same thing as Indian. That is an entire ethnic group who was colonized in India. In North America (this includes Canada), the amount of tribes was at least in the hundreds. There are rough estimates of the Native American populations; it is believed that Native American populations exceeded European’s population of 70 million people. Thousands of people were wiped out by the European arrival. The number of deaths would only continue to grow.

In the 1830s, Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act and it would force the tribes of Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek and Chickasaw off their ancestral lands. Most of the tribes removed themselves before the government could do it. The Cherokees, my tribe, attempted to fight back and they were forced to march from Georgia all the way to the lands in Oklahoma. Roughly 4,000 Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears. This is only one case of genocide. In Minnesota the Ojibwe and Dakota people faced unspeakable terrors and unjust removal by the settlers. For decades, European-Americans had been pushing for the ‘civilization’ of Native Americans. Finally, whites didn’t want to civilize the tribes anymore; they wanted to remove them completely so they could have the lands. European-Americans removed the Native Americans from the land and put them in a place they felt would be more suitable. However, it turns out that gold was discovered on the Cherokee land. Entire groups of people were decimated for gold and for land. Europeans came to America seeking some sort of asylum and they attempted to destroy an entire populations of people for the sake of material items. The refugee crisis and the attacks on Paris is connected to colonization.

Imperialism was the ideology that set colonization into practice. The three empires I mentioned earlier, along with a few others, continued to go into countries and carve up the land for themselves and it’s been happening for centuries. There is civil unrest in the Middle East because ethnic groups were forced together, which caused ethnic wars. In Africa there is a continuum of colonizers supporting a dictator. The Middle East was carved up by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Russia, France and Britain, and that area would never be the same. Today, Syrian refugees are seeking asylum in countries like Britain, France and even America. Yet, in the face of Islamophobia and the attacks on France and Beirut, America won’t open her doors to Syrian refugees because the government and some of its people are too damn terrified of Muslims. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is the quote written of the Statue of Liberty. Settlers came to America seeking a new life, my ancestors allowed them to stay to the point where they were almost wiped out, and now Syrian refugees are seeking a new life here because of a problem someone else created and perpetuated. Are you seeing the effects of colonization yet?

One last major issue that is affected by colonialism is the lives of black people in America. Recently in the Minneapolis area, there was another shooting of a young black man and his name was Jamar Clark. The Black Lives Matter activist group protested and five activists were shot Monday night by white men. This is a news story that has been retold over and over, with different characters, but the outcome is still the same. As American people are discovering, the police force is a systematically and systemically racist institution. It is one of those tricky systems created by the people, for the people, but who are the people? Colonialism is inherently racist because it validates white supremacy as white colonizers overtaking indigenous cultures (Middle East, India, Philippines, Latin America, North America and you get the picture) this is one of the reasons why racism still exists in America. There are several battle fronts for people of color to participate in.

As a Native American, I want to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter but I can’t stay silent when my own people’s history is largely ignored in history books and history classes. America’s economic foundations were created by the existence of slavery but America was once the home of entire indigenous groups, who belong here. Remember that. While these shootings keep occurring, I know that Native Americans face similar problems but it isn’t spoke about. And as the Thanksgiving holiday is rolling around, it begins to resonate as a holiday celebrating genocide. Native Americans face struggles of poverty and severe mental health problems, Syrian refugees are fleeing their own homeland, and black people are being ruthlessly shot and imprisoned. The purpose of this piece is not to separate these issues and give one more value than another. The predicament of Syrian refugees, Native Americans and blacks is caused by the history of colonization and it is a serious side effect. It is not one group that has faced cultural genocide, acts of murder or mass incarceration, it is all peoples of color who face these issues and continue to battle against them. When you sit down for a Thanksgiving meal, what is the great America really giving thanks for? It is cultural genocide, murder, violence, despair or are you starting to understand the deeper historical context of this Thanksgiving meal and its implication in race relations?