With Thanksgiving around the corner, and questions of refugees seeking asylum from war torn nations such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan dominating our national media (in the wake of the attacks in Paris), it seems only fitting to use this space to reflect on the meaning of that first encounter between indigenous peoples and English refugees (i.e. “Pilgrims”) — who, in the early 17th century, were looking to escape the abject poverty and religious persecution ravaging England. In short, were looking for asylum.
Descendants of indigenous peoples, of course, side-eye the fictive history playing out in elementary schools across the country, the cutsey reenactments and elaborate pageantry: children costumed in shawls and bonnets, beads and feathered headdresses. They pay no mind to the turkeys and side dishes, football and Pattie Pies. They do not think of Washington or Lincoln, who just after passing legislation federalizing the Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated by deploying troops into Minnesota to kill Sioux. They give no credence to Roosevelt or to the popular retellings of the famous harvest meal that took place between a small number of Wampanoag tribal members and English colonials, in 1621.
Rightfully so, they view Nov. 27 as an occasion to remind the nation and global village of the more consistent, longstanding history of domestic white terrorism, legalized violence, systematic dispossession, and mass displacement and destruction of families levied on America’s true native sons and daughters.
The Natives helped English refugees survive their first year in the “New World” and thrive in the colony thereafter. Colonials showed their appreciation by obliterating them off the face of the land, pilfering their possessions and “territory”, dissolving their traditions, and destroying their world.
Nov. 27 is a day when descendants of natives gather atop Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, to remember the fallen. To be reminded of the dead who were killed in the act of living, or protecting their right to exist.
The dead who live in and through the hope of progeny.
They gather to be reminded of broken promises and treaties with the “foreigners” who betrayed them. To prepare for the battles which await them on the other side of tomorrow. To encourage a future sustained by community, beautiful in its all-sidedness.
They gather to keep alive the real history.
It’s easy to contend that Congressional behavior toward today’s modern refugees is not in keeping with the high standards and history of Thanksgiving, and what this story means in the collective memory of most Americans.
It’s easy, and it’s wrong.
Doubling down on Islamophobic talk and speeding through legislation to institute these prejudices, is as much about justifying attitudes to “territory” now as it was in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries:
In the U.S. Congress, no less than six separate bills have been put forward to block any federal funding to resettle refugees from Syria or Iraq, and to empower states to deny entry into their “territory.” Imagine if all of a sudden we had 50 “statelets” creating their own border checkpoints, stopping all travelers, looking for anyone suspicious, i.e., any and all Syrians.
Of these 50 “statelets”,
… 31 state governors have essentially demanded this. Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order forbidding any agency of state government from cooperating in any way with Syrian refugee support efforts. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have called for a pause in the Syrian refugee program, with the support of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.
I can imagine it because xenophobia made America, and without it, there would be no states, no turkey, no Pattie Pie, no pageants, no football. I can imagine it because even though Thanksgiving is 400 years old, Western terrorism is two centuries older.
More, though this is our national custom, to steal territory and defend the territory we steal, these refugees are not the only ones damaged by this ongoing state campaign. Our values, the principles we hope to meet someday — embodied in the Thanksgiving holiday — are, as well.
Digest this present day fact of our current history, how far we’ve come, and the lengths we have to go, during next week’s day of mourning, as you gather around a myth and meal with your family.
It’s not just Natives who should be mourning. It’s all of us.
Featured Image: Protest Photos1, via Flickr Creative Commons