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Fear and Loathing of History on Thanksgiving

A column by Steven Newcomb about Thanksgiving history.

On November 19, the Drudge Report linked to a story about a Native student group at the University of Virginia, a group that decided to deal with the Thanksgiving holiday by holding a potluck dinner where students and speakers would discuss “Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective.” Reportedly, Ms. Nicole Bailey, executive-in-chief of the campus newspaper The Virginia Advocate, “stands firm against the plans of the student group.”

According to a report at Indian Country Today Media Network, “Bailey does not see such events as a chance to learn from and about Native Americans; rather, she sees them as an attack on American values. The most likely reason for Ms. Bailey’s attitude is that, like far too many self-proclaimed conservative Americans, she has a life-long and deeply ingrained learning disability when it comes to Indian history.

However, in this instance, when I think about the underlying meaning of “America” and “American values, I find Ms. Bailey’s feeling of an attack to be somewhat understandable. That feeling is the natural result of a psychological condition called denial, and a fear of cognitive dissonance. After all, a truthful discussion of America’s treatment of the originally free and independent nations and peoples of this continent, and of this hemisphere reveals the actual “American values,” not the professed ones. I will elaborate.

The word America is the result of a combination of two Latin terms: ame (love!) and rica (riches and wealth). The result is a strange command: Love riches and wealth! This reveals the deeper and hidden meaning of American values and The American Dream that Ms. Bailey extols. The original American Dream is of riches and wealth to be derived from Indian lands; to realize that dream as God’s “chosen people” all you had to do was get rid of (extirpate) the Indians in the spirit of the Old Testament. This is why their dream of riches and wealth to be derived from our traditional lands and territories is our nightmare.

The process of mining has been a fundamental means of fulfilling the dream of accumulating immense riches and wealth from Indian lands. This began with the Christian invaders of “heathen” and “infidel” lands performing superstitious rituals, such as waving a sword, sprinkling some water, tossing some dirt, breaking some branches, piling up some stones, planting royal flags, and then in effect solemnly declaring in the presence of a notary public, “It’s mine, all mine!” This is the beginning of the “mining” process.

The invaders of the lands “previously unknown to Christian people,” as many royal charters put it, then set to work accumulating profits by colonizing, mining, and exploiting every possible form of life in the traditional territories of our nations and peoples. The process continues to this day with projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, and some $30 billion in gold (and counting) that has been extracted from the Western Shoshone Nation’s territory, to cite just two of countless examples.

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The invaders also worked, quite diligently, to rid themselves of what was for them the haunting “stain” of our existence in our own lands, an existence that extends back for thousands of years prior to their invasive arrival. Now, as made evident by Ms. Bailey’s attitude about the prospect of the student’s educational potluck, it seems that some Americans are even troubled by the prospect of us recounting our memories of what happened to our ancestors.

Exasperatingly for them, no matter how much they declare in the manner of Macbeth, “Out Damn Spot,” we never seem to go away. Nor will we. The “spot” is the blood on hands of the colonizing societies from countless massacres, and millions of lives lost from the invasive arrival of the vectors of murder and disease from Western Europe.

The subject of massacres brings us to Pilgrim history and Miles Standish, a truly rapacious man. David Horowitz, in The First Frontier: The Indian Wars & America’s Origins, 1607-1776, relates the story of how Standish murdered an unarmed Indian, Pecksuot. The Indians, having been invited to dinner, were seated in the house where Standish was staying. Then, “a signal was given, the door locked, and Standish lunged at the unsuspecting Pecksuot, seized the knife which hung about the Indian’s neck, and plunged it into his breast.” The other Pilgrims with Standish “then drew their weapons and fell on the unarmed Wituwamat and the others.”

Horowitz continues: “As soon as it was over, Standish ordered his soldiers to seize and kill every Indian male that could be found.” And, “as a symbol of the Pilgrims’ restored prestige, the severed head of Wituwamat was placed on a pike and brought to Plymouth, where it was prominently displayed for the next twenty years.”

What Vine Deloria, Jr. once said about the idea of Indians celebrating Columbus Day applies equally to Indians celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s like celebrating your own hanging.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.