Thanksgiving’s history should be talked about

A panel discussion hosted by Philbrook put the whitewashing of the holiday into context.

What is the true history behind Thanksgiving, and are we really celebrating genocide and theft of land from native people every November? A panel discussion hosted by Bracken Klar of the Tri City Collective and featuring commentary from Appollonia Piña and Trygve Jorgensen tackled this difficult subject.

Jorgensen is a member of the Choctaw tribe and historian who works as an administrator in the Tulsa Public Schools school district. He has plans to revise history textbooks nationwide to accurately reflect the experience of Native Americans throughout US history. Piña is Chicana and a member of the Muskogee tribe who graduated from OU with a degree in the STEM field. She has hosted talks of her own on indigenous technology and science.

It’s high time we recognize the true nature of the past relationship between white settlers and indigenous people, a relationship that still has ramifications today. As Piña put it, “Today native people have to quantify their ‘Indianness.’ Who else has to do that? It’s just like how dogs and horses have to certify their pedigree.”

That aspect of federal law seems really dehumanizing. Making Native Americans calculate their level of indigenous blood in their veins, for federal scholarships, could certainly feel like tracing the pedigree on show horse.
Patriotic sentimentalism keeps us from recognizing the true nature of the past relationship between white settlers and the native people of this land: a relationship that involved deceit, racism and outright warfare.

Native Americans before Columbus are sometimes depicted as uncivilized. In fact, a strong trade system existed between tribes and each clan adhered to strict rules of clan law. Jorgensen stated that in ancient tribal law it was forbidden to marry inside the tribe, as it was thought that intermarriage would lead to poor breeding. Keep in mind this was at the time when some noble families in Europe actively practiced incest to keep their bloddlines pure.
Jorgensen further stated that in Cherokee tribal law a man who was deemed guilty of raping a woman would be strung up on a tree and given 100 lashes with a whip. Considering today’s sometimes unreliable court system, I can’t say that practice was less justified, maybe just less bureaucratic. There are over 400 recognized tribes today, and each have separate languages, customs and heritage.

Maybe white settlers were the savages. According to Jorgensen, South Carolina passed a law stipulating that the life of a single native slave was worth 200 deerskins in 1695. Historians state that before the turn of the 18th century, there were more native than African slaves in America. Slavery of any group is obviously wrong, but I had no idea Native Americans were subjugated to such an extent.

Their advice isn’t to stop celebrating Thanksgiving, but to keep in mind the true history behind the holiday. We white folks should do much better at recognizing the unjust role of our ancestors in American history, especially when it comes to a holiday like Thanksgiving. Piña says she sees the holiday as a genuine time to be grateful for friends and family and the good food being shared.

So next time your uncle makes a toast to “those generous indigenous tribes that taught early settlers in Jamestown how to farm,” just remember how white Americans treated those same tribes: they stole their land and forced many of them into slavery.

Post Author: Gabe Powell