Why I Hate Thanksgiving by Mitchel Cohen
with much material contributed by Peter Linebaugh
and others whose names have been lost
The year was 1492. The Taino-Arawak people of the Bahamas discovered Christopher Columbus on their beach.
In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn writes how Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. Columbus later wrote of this in his log. Here is what he wrote:They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of sugar cane. They would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
And so the conquest began, and the Thanotocracy the regime of death was inaugurated, for the first time, on the continent the Indians called “Turtle Island.”
You probably already know a good piece of the story: How Columbus’s army took Arawak and Taino people prisoners and insisted that they take him to the source of their gold, which they used in tiny ornaments in their ears. And how, with utter contempt and cruelty, Columbus took many more Indians prisoner and put them aboard the Nina and the Pinta the Santa Maria having run aground on the island of Hispañola (today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti). When some refused to be taken prisoner, they were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. During the long voyage, many of the Indian prisoners died. Here’s part of Columbus’s report to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain:The Indians are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.” Columbus concluded his report by asking for a little help from the King and Queen, and in return he would bring them “as much gold as they need, and as many slaves as they ask.
Columbus returned to the New World “new” for Europeans, that is with 17 ships and more than 1,200 men. Their aim was clear: Slaves, and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives.
But word spread ahead of them. By the time they got to Fort Navidad on Haiti, the Taino had risen up and killed all the sailors left behind on the last voyage, after the sailors had roamed the island in gangs raping women and taking children and women as slaves. Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
The Indians began fighting back, but were no match for the war technology of the Spaniard conquerors, even though they greatly outnumbered them. In eight years, Columbus’s men murdered more than 100,000 Indians on Haiti alone. Overall, dying as slaves in the mines, directly murdered, or dying from diseases brought to the Caribbean by the Spaniards, over 3 million Indian people were murdered in the Americas between 1492 and 1508.
What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas and the Taino of the Caribbean, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. Literally millions of native peoples were slaughtered. And the gold, slaves and other resources were used in Europe to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism. Karl Marx would later call this “the primitive accumulation of capital.” These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.
In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early. In 1585, before there was any permanent English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian village.
The Jamestown colony was established in Virginia in 1607, inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people’s land, but did not attack. And the English began starving. Some of them ran away and joined the Indians, where they would at least be fed. Indeed, throughout colonial times tens of thousands of indentured servants, prisoners and slaves from Wales and Scotland as well as from Africa ran away to live in Indian communities, inter-marry, and raise their children there.
In the summer of 1610 the governor of Jamestown colony asked Powhatan to return the runaways, who were living among the Indians. Powhatan left the choice to those who ran away, and none wanted to go back. The governor of Jamestown then sent soldiers to take revenge. They descended on an Indian community, killed 15 or 16 Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the female leader of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. The female leader was later taken off the boat and stabbed to death.
By 1621, the atrocities committed by the English had grown, and word spread throughout the Indian villages. The Indians fought back, and killed 347 colonists. From then on it was total war. Not able to enslave the Indians the English aristocracy decided to exterminate them.
And then the Pilgrims arrived.
When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The story goes that the Pilgrims, who were Christians of the Puritan sect, were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They had fled England and went to Holland, and from there sailed aboard the Mayflower, where they landed near what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Religious persecution or not, they immediately turned to their religion to rationalize their persecution of others. They appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” To justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they wanted their land. And they wanted to establish their rule firmly over Connecticut settlers in that area.
The way the different Indian peoples lived communally, consensually, making decisions through tribal councils contrasted dramatically with the Puritans’ Christian fundamentalist values. For the Puritans, men decided everything, whereas in the Iroquois federation of what is now New York state women chose the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils; it was the women who were responsible for deciding on whether or not to go to war. The Christian idea of male dominance and female subordination was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.
There were many other cultural differences: The Iroquois did not use harsh punishment on children. They did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training, but gradually allowed children to learn to care for themselves. On the other hand, the pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, advised his parishioners: “And surely there is in all children a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down.” The Pilgrims embraced those strict, brutal practices.
Each tribe held to different sexual/marriage relationships; they practiced many different sexualities, and celebrated them. These ideas repelled the Puritan hierarchy and attracted some of the European “commoners”. Native people did not believe in ownership of land that concept was totally alien; they utilized the land, lived on it. The idea of “ownership” was ridiculous, absurd. The European Christians, on the other hand, in the spirit of the emerging capitalism, wanted to own and control everything land, children, sexuality, and other human beings.
In 1636 an armed expedition left Boston to attack the Narragansett Indians on Block Island. The English landed and killed some Indians, but the rest hid in the thick forests of the island and the English went from one deserted village to the next, destroying crops. Then they sailed back to the mainland and raided Pequot villages along the coast, destroying crops again.
The English went on setting fire to wigwams in the village. They burned village after village to the ground. As one of the leading theologians of his day, Dr. Cotton Mather put it: “No less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.” And Cotton Mather, clutching his bible, spurred the English to slaughter more Indians in the name of Christianity.
One colonist rationalized the plague that had destroyed the Patuxet people a combination of slavery, murder by the colonists and disease brought by the English as “the Wonderful Preparation of the Lord Jesus Christ by His Providence for His People’s Abode in the Western World.”
The Pilgrims robbed Wampanoag graves for the food that had been buried with the dead for religious reasons. Whenever the Pilgrims realized they were being watched, they shot at the Wampanoags and scalped them. Scalping had been unknown among Native Americans in New England prior to its introduction by the English, who began the practice by offering the heads of their enemies and later accepted scalps.
Three hundred thousand Indians were murdered in New England over the next few years. It was the Puritan elite who wanted the war, a war for land, for gold, for power. It is important to note that ordinary Englishmen did not want this war. Often, very often, they refused to fight.
There has always been a strong anti-war movement in the United States and when some Europeans refused to kill Indians, that was the start of this proud heritage. Some European intellectuals like Roger Williams spoke out against the genocide. And some erstwhile colonists joined the Indians and even took up arms against the invaders from England. In the end, however, the Indian population of 10 million that was in North America when Columbus came was reduced to less than one million.
“What do you think of Western Civilization?” Mahatma Gandhi was asked in the 1940s. To which Gandhi replied: “Western Civilization? I think it would be a good idea.” And so enters “Civilization,” the civilization of Christian Europe, a “civilizing force” that couldn’t have been more threatened by the beautiful communal anarchy of the Indians they encountered, and so they slaughtered them.
These are the Puritans that the Indians “saved”, and whom we celebrate in the holiday, Thanksgiving. Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet Indian nation, and Samoset was of the Wabonake Indian nation, which lived in Maine. They went to Puritan villages and, having learned to speak English, brought deer meat and beaver skins for the hungry, cold Pilgrims. Tisquantum stayed with them and helped them survive their first years in their New World. He taught them how to navigate the waters, fish and cultivate corn and other vegetables. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicines. He also negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, head chief of the Wampanoags, a treaty that gave the Pilgrims everything and the Indians nothing. And even that treaty, like hundreds to follow, was soon broken.
We learn in school to celebrate this as the First Thanksgiving. A community college named “Massasoit” today commemorates that indigenous leader who saved the Pilgrims.
Richard B. Williams, a Lakota Sioux and the executive director of the American Indian College Fund a historian, educator and the founder of the Upward Bound Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder casts this tale in a very different light:One day in 1605, a young Patuxet Indian boy named Tisquantum and his dog were out hunting when they spotted a large English merchant ship off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Tisquantum, who later became known as Squanto, had no idea that life as he knew it was about to change forever.
His role in helping the Pilgrims to survive the harsh New England winter and celebrate the “first” Thanksgiving has been much storied as a legend of happy endings, with the English and the Indians coming together at the same table in racial harmony. Few people, however, know the story of Squanto's sad life and the demise of his tribe as a result of its generosity. Each year, as the nation sits down to a meal that is celebrated by all cultures and races the day we know as Thanksgiving the story of Squanto and the fate of the Patuxet tribe is a footnote in history that deserves re-examination.
The day that Capt. George Weymouth anchored off the coast of Massachusetts, he and his sailors captured Squanto and four other tribesmen and took them back to England as slaves because Weymouth thought his financial backers “might like to see” some Indians. Squanto was taken to live with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, owner of the Plymouth Company. Gorges quickly saw Squanto's value to his company's exploits in the new world and taught his young charge to speak English so that his captains could negotiate trade deals with the Indians.
In 1614, Squanto was brought back to America to act as a guide and interpreter to assist in the mapping of the New England coast, but was kidnapped along with 27 other Indians and taken to Malaga, Spain, to be sold as slaves for about $25 a piece. When local priests learned of the fate of the Indians, they took them from the slave traders, Christianized them and eventually sent them back to America in 1618.
But his return home was short-lived. Squanto was recognized by one of Gorges’ captains, was captured a third time and sent back to England as Gorges’ slave. He was later sent back to New England with Thomas Dermer to finish mapping the coast, after which he was promised his freedom. In 1619, however, upon returning to his homeland, Squanto learned that his entire tribe had been wiped out by smallpox contracted from the Europeans two years before. He was the last surviving member of his tribe.
In November 1620, the Pilgrims made their now-famous voyage to the coast of Plymouth, which had previously been the center of Patuxet culture. The next year, on March 22, 1621, Squanto was sent to negotiate a peace treaty between the Wampanoag Confederation of tribes and the Pilgrims. We also know that Squanto’s skills as a fisherman and farmer were crucial to the survival of the Pilgrims that first year contributions which changed history.
But in November 1622, Squanto himself would also succumb to smallpox during a trading expedition to the Massachusetts Indians. The Patuxet, like so many other tribes, had become extinct.
Feasts of gratitude and giving thanks have been a part of Indian culture for thousands of years. In Lakota culture, it's called a Wopila; in Navajo, it's Hozhoni; in Cherokee, it's Selu i-tse-i; and in Ho Chunk it's Wicawas warocu sto waroc. Each tribe, each Indian nation, has its own form of Thanksgiving. But for Indian culture, Thanksgiving doesn't end when the dishes are put away. It is something we celebrate all year long at the birth of a baby, a safe journey, a new home.
My own feeling? The Indians should have left the Pilgrims to their own devices, even if it meant they would die.
But they couldn’t do that. Their humanity made them assist other human beings in need. And for that beautiful, human, loving connection they paid a terrible price: The genocide of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island, what is now America.
Thanksgiving, in reality, was the beginning of the longest war in the U.S. the extermination of the Indigenous peoples. Thanksgiving day was first proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, not to offer thanks for the Indians saving the Pilgrims that’s yet another re-write of the actual history but to commemorate the massacre of 700 indigenous men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance in their own house.
Gathered at this place, they were attacked by mercenaries, English and Dutch. The Pequots were ordered from the building and as they came forth they were killed with guns, swords, cannons and torches. The rest were burned alive in the building. The very next day the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to “give thanks” for the massacre. For the next 100 years a governor would ordain a day to honor a bloody victory, thanking god the “battle” had been won. [For more information, see Where White Men Fear To Tread, by Russell Means, 1995; and Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, by R. Drinnon, 1990.]
In 1517, 25 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, the English working class was in the midst of a huge revolt, organized through the guilds. King Henry VIII had brought to England Lombard bankers from Italy and merchants from France to undercut wages, lengthen hours, and break the guilds. This alliance between international finance, national capital and military aristocracy was in the process of merging into the imperialist nation-state.
The young workers of London took their revenge upon the merchants. A rumor said the commonality the vision of communal society that would counter the rich, the merchants, the industrialists, the nobility and the landowners would arise on May Day. The King and Lords got frightened householders were armed, a curfew was declared. Two workers didn’t hear about the curfew (they missed Dan Rather on TV). They were arrested. The shout went out to mobilize, and 700 workers stormed the jails, throwing bricks, hot water, stones. The prisoners were freed. A French capitalist’s house was trashed.
Then came the repression: Cannons were fired into the city. Three hundred were imprisoned, soldiers patrolled the streets, and a proclamation was made that no women were allowed to meet together, and that all men should “keep their wives in their houses.” The prisoners were brought through the streets tied in ropes. Some were children. Eleven sets of gallows were set up throughout the city. Many were hanged. The authorities showed no mercy and exhibited extreme cruelty.
Thus the dreaded Thanatocracy, the regime of death, was inaugurated in England in answer to proletarian riot at the beginning of capitalism.
The May Day riots were caused by expropriation (people having been uprooted from their lands they had used for centuries in common), and by exploitation (people had no jobs, as the monarchy imported capital). Working class women organizers and healers who posed an alternative to patriarchal capitalism were burned at the stake as witches. Enclosure, conquest, famine, war and plague ravaged the people who, in losing their commons, also lost a place to put the traditional emblem of the Commons their Maypole.
Suddenly, the Maypole became a symbol of rebellion. In 1550, Parliament ordered the destruction of Maypoles (just as, during the Vietnam war, the U.S.-backed junta in Saigon banned the making of all red cloth, for people were sewing it into the blue, yellow and red flags of the National Liberation Front).
While heretical liberation-theologists of the day were burned at the stake, the Bible’s last book, Revelation, became an anti-authoritarian manual inspirational to those who would turn the Puritans’ world upside down, such as the Family of Love, the Anabaptists, the Diggers, Levellers, and Ranters. In 1626, Thomas Morton, who had come over on his own, a boat person, an immigrant, went to Merry Mount in Quincy Massachusetts and with his Indian friends put up the first Maypole in America, in contempt of the Puritans. The Puritans destroyed it, and in retaliation exiled Morton, plagued the Indians, and hanged gay people and Quakers.
In Great Britain, the proletarian insurgency flared in fits and starts throughout the empire. Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan army blazed into Ireland in 1649, slaughtered 3,500 defenders and local citizenry of the town of Drogheda, and confiscated almost forty percent of indigenous Catholic lands in Ireland, redistributing them to Protestants born in Britain. The British treatment of the Irish patriots paralleled the monarchy’s regard for the indigenous people of the “New World”.
Although the Puritans were removed from power in England in 1660 with the death of Cromwell two years before and the ascendance of Charles II to the throne, the Puritans in the Americas continued their war against the Pequot Indians while in Britain May Day was abolished altogether, as part of the attempt to defeat the growing proletarian insurgency.
In the Americas, rebellion was brewing among the colonists. Charles II put down Bacon’s Rebellion with great bloodshed in Virginia, during which both sides used, abused, and murdered Indians to reinforce their power. The king’s emissaries began the conquest of a new string of colonies in the South.
A century-and-a-half after Morton planted the first Maypole in the British colonies, another great “troublemaker,” the Manchester proletarian Ann Lee, arrived in the Americas (1774) and founded the communal living, gender-separated Shakers who praised God in ecstatic dance and, in rejecting marriage and refusing to procreate, drove the Puritans and other religious zealots up the wall.
The story of the Maypole as a symbol of revolt continued. It crossed cultures and continued through the ages. In the late 1800s, the Sioux began the Ghost Dance in a circle, with a large pine tree in the center, which was covered with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds, claws, and horns, all offerings to the Great Spirit. They didn’t call it a Maypole, but they danced, just as the English proletarians danced, just as the Shakers’ danced, for the unity of all Indians, the return of the dead, and the expulsion of the invaders. It might as well have been a Mayday!
Wovoka, a Nevada Paiute, started it. Expropriated, he cut his hair. To buy watermelon he rode boxcars to work in the Oregon hop fields for small wages, exploited. The Puget Sound Indians had a new religion they stopped drinking alcohol, became entranced, and danced for five days, jerking twitching, calling for their land back. Wovoka took this back to Nevada: “All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing.” Soon they were. Porcupine took the dance across the Rockies to the Sioux. Red Cloud and Sitting Bull advanced the left foot following with the right, hardly lifting their feet from the ground. The Federal Agents banned the Ghost Dance. They claimed it was a cause of the last Sioux outbreak, just as the Puritans had claimed the Maypole dancers had caused the May Day proletarian riots, just as the Shakers were dancing people into communality and out of Puritanism.
And, just as the American working class was engaging in pitched battles in its fight for the 8-hour day.
On December 29, 1890 the U.S. Government (with Hotchkiss guns throwing 2 pound explosive shells, each containing 30 one-half-inch lead balls, at the rate of 50 per minute) massacred more than 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee. These same weapons were also turned against striking industrial workers and their families. As in the Waco holocaust a century later, or the government’s bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia, the State disclaimed responsibility. The Bureau of Ethnology sent out James Mooney to investigate. Amid Janet Reno-like tears, he wrote: “The Indians were responsible for the engagement.” Nothing has changed.
In 1970, the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts held, as it does each year, a Thanksgiving Ceremony given by the townspeople. There are many speeches for the crowds who attend. That year the year of Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia; the year 4 students were massacred at Kent State and 13 wounded for opposing the war; the year they tried to electrocute Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoag Indians to select a speaker to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, and the first Thanksgiving.
Wamsutta “Frank” James, a leader of the Wampanoags from Massachusetts, was selected. But before he was allowed to speak he was directed to show a copy of his speech to the “citizens” in charge of the ceremony. When they saw what he had written, they would not allow him to read it.
First: the genocide. Then, the suppression of all discussion about it, even a century later.
Here is a portion of James’ speech one of the most famous “undelivered” speeches in American history:It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you-celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what has happened to my people. ...
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, ......and his people, welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people. ...
History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. ...
Our spirit refuses to die. Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and shady trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting. We're standing not in our wigwams but in your concrete tent. We stand tall and proud, and before too many moons pass we'll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.
We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth and brotherhood prevail.
You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.
For the indigenous people of the Americas, Thanksgiving is “the National Day of Mourning.”
What does anyone have to be thankful for in the genocide of the Indians that this “holyday” commemorates? As we sit with our families on Thanksgiving, taking the opportunity to get out of work or off the streets and be in a warm place with people we love, we realize that none of the things we have to be thankful for have anything at all to do with the Pilgrims or the official (sanitized) version of American history, and everything to do with the alternative, anarcho-communist lives the Indian peoples led before they were massacred by the colonists in the name of Christianity, privatization of property and the lust for gold and slave labor.
Yes, I am an American. But I am an American in revolt. I am revolted by the holiday known as Thanksgiving.
I have been accused of wanting to go backwards in time, of being against progress. To those charges, I plead guilty. I want to go back in time to when people lived communally, before the colonists’ Christian god was brought to these shores to sanctify their terrorism, their slavery, their hatred of children, their capitalism, their oppression of women, their holocausts. But that is impossible. So I look forward to the utter destruction of the apparatus of death known as Amerika not the people, not the beautiful land, but the machinery of empire, the State, capitalism, religious bigotry that in many ways dominates everyday life, greed, and the lies that enable it to continue, sucking us into being complicit with this awful history ... as it is repeated today.
I look forward to a future where I will have children with America, and ... they will be the new Indians.
© 2005 Mitchel Cohen
Mitchel Cohen is a member of the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party of New York,
and co-edits the NY State Greens’ newspaper, “G”.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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