Saklad: No Thanks

What does Thanksgiving mean today?

by Avery Saklad | 11/13/18 11:08pm

 By now the world knows, or at least many of us do, that Thanksgiving is a holiday tainted by its unethical historical context. In tasteless celebration of the white man’s massacre of indigenous peoples, Americans gorge themselves annually on factory-farmed turkey, GMO-riddled green bean casserole and squash, artificially-sweetened cranberry sauce and all other sorts of American delicacies. Younger family members are told gilded tales about Squanto and falsified stories depicting the colonists and the indigenous peoples living in harmony. Swept under the carpet are the European diseases, the unjust exploitation of natives and the sick reality that the foundations of the world we live in today were ripped from the hands of the people who called this land home before us.

Dartmouth students hear this narrative of suffering around campus every year in the advent of winterim, and then we pack our bags, travel home and forget about it in the face of family and food. Given the history we’re exposed to, participation is halfheartedly justified by the celebration of Thanksgiving’s abstract principles: gratitude for the good fortune in our lives, love for relatives we don’t see all too often and appreciation for delicious food and a community dinner setting lost in many modern American families. These values offer Thanksgiving celebrations ongoing legitimacy in the face of its horrific roots; they’ve preserved the holiday from its origins to today, through wars and political dissension that have threatened to tear our country apart, and they’re worthy of celebration and annual recognition.

Yet celebration of only the positive aspects of Thanksgiving does not atone for its roots. The ignorant actions of the colonists continue to impact society today, and we cannot simply choose to forget about them in favor of a jolly holiday spirit fueled by quasi recognition of Thanksgiving’s basic ideologies. Directly speaking, Native peoples still struggle to maintain their property rights, their lands often subjected to immoral ecological desecration like the planned construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline through the Cheyenne River tribe’s land or the Dakota Access pipeline installed in 2016 upstream of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Because of Europe’s invasion of North America, native cultures and languages face or have succumbed to extinction as their populations dwindle and disperse. There are so many more examples of oppression toward indigenous peoples, but it boils down, essentially, to this: indigenous lands are often still within the greedy clutch of the federal government, and its attitude toward the rights of Native peoples to their land is despairingly similar to that of the colonial white men who took it from them in the first place.

How can we reconcile our celebration of Thanksgiving with the ongoing reality of direct exploitation of Native Americans? This is an issue that scribbles outside the confines of Native cultures and societies. Pervasive colonial attitudes manifest themselves throughout the current political environment. Americans still believe in their rights to economic expansion, infrastructure development and resource extraction even at the cost of the environment and other people’s well-being. Cisgendered white men perch high on society’s totem pole atop the burdened shoulders of minorities and women for no reason other than that they’re straight and they’re white and they’re men — those are and have always been the essential ingredients for unearned privilege in America. We’ve been running along the same narrative track for so long that we have no idea how to diverge, and even if we did, the cultural values that empower the cisgendered white man are so ingrained in our society that reformation would mean massive political upheaval and societal reconstruction.

Although we may lose ourselves in fun and festivities honoring the noble principles of gratitude and togetherness, we cannot forget about these social justice issues on Thanksgiving. Around the dinner table, in evening clusters of friends and family, forget the taboo of talking about politics and bring up the reality of oppression in America. Ruminate over the lasting legacies of the colonists, the power dynamics and patterns of exploitation and corrupt societal values that persist in today’s world despite our educations. Perhaps most importantly, and in keeping with the holiday spirit, think about all of the blessings you have as an individual, and then consider the costs of those fortunes may have on others, be they economic or environmental, direct or indirect, and brainstorm opportunities you have to make this country a better place for the oppressed. Maybe that means picking up a tag from a local giving tree or volunteering to cook holiday meals for people in need in your community. Maybe it means signing petitions, joining protests and demanding change and betterment from our country in reparation of the great harms that oppressed people and the environment since our country’s foundation, inequitable sacrifices that perpetuate the privilege of few. Confrontation is the only way to educate ourselves, and this knowledge is the only way to generate the mass motivation necessary to turn this country into a land all people can be grateful to live in.