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If ever there was an American holiday where history ought to be left off the menu it is Thanksgiving.
As an American Indian, I can’t think of anything more depressing than sitting around the dinner table tracing the legacy of a holiday that began with a questionable decision to save a band of starving pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
Almost immediately after the Indians’ rescue feast, the pilgrims and their European successors began a ceaseless campaign of colonization – raiding Indian villages, murdering inhabitants, stealing land and spreading infectious diseases that nearly wiped out whole tribal populations on the entire East Coast.
Excuse me, but I thought Indians were supposed to be the savages.
To make way for expansion after the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government ordered tribes to abandon their interior lands and move west of the Mississippi. While President Andrew Jackson debated whether or not he had the authority to proclaim an official date of Thanksgiving, he had no trouble signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Tribes like the Cherokee and Seminole lost thousands of their people to internment camp diseases and barefoot trails across snowy mountains and icy rivers.
Breaking treaties with tribal nations was the rule of the 19th century. Indians ceded vast amounts of land to the white man with little return. Indian resistance was met with the slaughter of women and children at places like Sand Creek and Wounded Knee.
One year before President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be the official day for giving thanks, he authorized the largest execution in this nation’s history. After the Dakota of Minnesota were left starving on reservation land, some members began hunting off reservation. Skirmishes erupted between Indians and the settlers. The U.S. military rounded up hundreds of Indians. And Lincoln ordered the execution of thirty-nine “Indians and half-breeds,” as he called them. One received a last-minute reprieve. But on the day after Christmas in 1862, the military carried out Lincoln’s order and hanged 38 Dakota men.
In the decades that followed, the federal government kept trying to reduce Indians even further. It sent Indian children to boarding schools to adopt white ways. It weakened tribal self-rule. It stole resources from Indian land. And it failed to deliver billions of dollars owed by treaties to Indians.
Not a Thanksgiving has passed without Indians staring through America’s dining room window.
Every year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation brings a live turkey to the White House. Tradition calls for the president to pardon the bird by allowing it to live out its days in quiet solitude on some obscure farm. It’s quite the irony. Imagine how different the history of Thanksgiving would be if the Pilgrims had done the same to the Indians.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.