Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Thanksgiving Myth

Thanksgiving is fundamentally about giving thanks. Though, according to Wikipedia and what we are generally told in the US, it has associations with Pilgrims, Puritans and being a harvest festival in the US. For Native Americans, the story of Thanksgiving is not a very happy one.

“Thanksgiving” has become a time of mourning for many Native People. It serves as a period of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many Native people from disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation. As celebrated in America “Thanksgiving” is a reminder of 500 years of betrayal. To many Native Americans, the Thanksgiving Myth amounts to the settler’s justification for the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Native Americans think of this official U.S. celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10+ million native people. Here is a  view of how one Native American views the holiday who provides some background on the source of this darker view and also shares why she has chosen to view it in another way with a spirit of forgiveness.

Thanksgiving is also associated with hard core shopping in the U.S. with something called Black Friday.  However, in the modern era, where few are aware of the damage to the native cultures by the original settlers and broken treaties, it is essentially about feasting, football, shopping and expressing gratitude. This is what most of my personal experience has been, football, shopping and turkey (apparently 45 million will die). 

While I have never resonated with the commercialism of the event, I have always felt that the celebration of gratitude is wonderful. Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has — as opposed to, for example, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants. Gratitude is getting a great deal of attention as a facet of positive psychology: Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others -- is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.

What Is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has two key components, which he describes in a Greater Good essay, “Why Gratitude Is Good.”

“First,” he writes, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”

In the second part of gratitude, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people -- or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Emmons and other researchers see the social dimension as being especially important to gratitude. “I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion,“ writes Emmons, “because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”
Because gratitude encourages us not only to appreciate gifts but to repay them (or pay them forward), the sociologist Georg Simmel called it “the moral memory of mankind.”

As an immigrant to America I have always felt that the Thanksgiving story I was told about Pilgrims and "Indians" holding hands and smiling, was at least a little bit shaky based on my very limited knowledge of American history. However, it just never rang true to my mind. And while I feel that any day when a family and a community gather to give thanks, is special and worthy of celebration, I think we should also acknowledge that the history we are told is suspect, as often, history is written by the victors and not by men of even and truthful temperance. Part of giving thanks, it seems to me is to also acknowledge the sacrifices of our ancestors who may have made one’s plenitude possible. This would include the Native Americans if you live in North America, as they have always regarded themselves as caretakers of the land rather than owners of it. The following statement is something that you will hear from many Native Americans about their ethos.

As America’s Host People, Native Americans are the keepers of the land, that is our sacred duty. Our responsibilities include bringing the land, the people, and the rest of creation back into harmony.
 On this particular Thanksgiving, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, we have yet another example of Native Americans standing up for what they believe is a sacred trust, to protect the desecration of land they consider holy, and protect potential damage to the largest drinking water supply in the region. This is yet another example of the betrayal of a treaty with the US government, as many believe that this should have been prevented by treaties already in place. From one perspective the issues are complex as described here and in looking at the oil price economics driving the project. The world has been electrified by protests against the Dakota access pipeline. Is this a new civil rights movement where environmental and human rights meet?

For the Elders leading the protest there are 3 clear reasons to try and stop this:
  1. Prevent desecration of sacred burial grounds and what is considered “holy” land,
  2. Protect a major supply of natural drinking water from potential oil spill accidents,
  3. They have treaty in place with US government that was supposed to protect against commercial exploitation of protected land.

 For those who think that the oil spill potential is overstated, should take a look at how frequently these accidents do happen, and what happens when they do. Galveston Bay, a hub for oil traffic, for example averages close to 300 oil spills of various sizes each year. As you may have guessed, Galveston is not known for it’s wonderful beach experience. The Exxon Valdez spill still has a negative impact 25 years later, and the environment and wildlife has yet to fully recover from the accident. The impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill examined 5 years later, shows that while nature does have a recovery process, some things can take decades or longer to even understand the damage let alone recover.

Here is a video of a 90,000 gallon spill in May 2016 that did not even make the daily news since these kinds of spills are so common.

So on this Thanksgiving, I also give thanks to those who oppose this pipeline and make a valiant attempt to stop the potential destruction of one of the largest natural drinking water supplies in the US. The Native American ethos also has a very unique view on death in such a battle. When one battles and fights for the community well being, and for the land, it is considered to be a noble death since it is a sacrifice for the well being of others.  Robbie Robertson (of The Band) captures the emotion that these “water protectors” must feel at Standing Rock, wonderfully in this live rendition of “It is a good day to die”, a quote attributed to Crazy Horse. This translation is the English bastardization of a common Sioux battle-cry of, "Nake nula wauŋ welo!" This phrase really means, "I am ready for whatever comes." It was meant to show the warriors were not afraid of the battle or dying in it. So... Crazy Horse probably shouted, "Hokahey! Nake nula wauŋ welo!"

I wish you all a warm and loving Thanksgiving as you express your gratitude for your plenitude.



  1. Thnak you, Kirti, for bringing the confrontation in Standing Rock to mind again. It has been very interesting trying to follow those events from Europe and see the reactions. Some try to point out how many protesters are "not from the area" as if this were a bad thing. Or that despite treaties, all that matters are the "facts on the ground" (as one American lawyer linguist fond of defending Germany's neo-Nazi AfD has stated). But what are the facts on the ground indeed? The facts are that the locals are not standing alone and that others from around the country have their back. Let's hope the president can keep his promises in that regard as well in his final days in office. And the facts on the ground, in the ground, are that the memory of injustice can be long, and the blood-soaked earth that covers the bones broken with promises unkept will bear witness when witless tongues continue to lie. Gratitude is indeed a powerful, healing thing, and I am grateful that there are still some who will stand to truth.

  2. This is such a beautiful post. Thank you!