Thanksgiving: Why We Can’t forget About Colonialism
Thanksgiving this year has highlighted how this holiday has become so engrained into our cultural fabric. Amidst a serious pandemic and a third wave of COVID-19, families across the country are not listening to the many warnings given by mayors, governors, World Health Organization, doctors and nurses to avoid gathering for the holiday. Celebrating Thanksgiving has for many become a hallmark of their family tradition and to skip it would be sacrilege. In my own social and familial circles, I’ve seen this commitment to Thanksgiving, and I’ve found it puzzling.
I’ve asked myself: don’t folks know that this tradition was born out of colonialism, imperialism, and mass genocide? Is it really worth putting yourself, your family, and Americans at risk for a deadly virus? But, as I point out these facts — facts that we are all now fully aware of in the 21st century, I’m amazed at how people rewrite historical narratives with rationale such as: that was a long time ago, this holiday isn’t about that anymore it’s about family and gratitude, this is the time we get to spend together, I know that’s terrible but can’t we look at the good things this holiday now brings? As I take in these responses, I realize just how effective colonialism is: being thankful for what you have regardless of the costs it took to get it. As colonialism and imperialism take new forms: we can point to its old shapes like the skin a snake will shed. But that’s never its end, just a process in its evolution.
Between 1492 and the 19th century colonizers (which became the U.S. government) waged over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on American Indians, the most of any country in the world against indigenous people. By the late 19th century fewer than 238,000 remained after millions were killed. This is the history we seek to dismiss in the spirit of Thanksgiving. But what we don’t realize is that we are also disregarding present day colonialism — and that is not just a danger to American Indians but a danger to all of us.
This history has had long term effects on American Indians today — outcomes we should care about in the present. As we celebrate our families, I urge us to consider the ways in which Native American families have been changed over time as a product of colonialism. Indenturing women and children in the 1800s had long-term effects on Native communities, by alienating tribes from their offspring and women who produced this offspring — Native populations were reduced, and family structures were dismantled, which disrupted social and communal ties. Women historically are viewed as carriers of culture, therefore, illegally enslaving them and their children were also explicit attacks on Native culture and the American Indian family structure.
Blood quantum policies only augmented these effects as they created a stricter and more rigid categorization for what it meant to be “native.” These policies were aimed at American Indians living off reservations as a way of denying native identity and separating those who assimilated into the settler state from those who remained on reservations. Blood quantum policies were often paired with policies such as the Racial Integrity Act to promote intermarriage so that eventually “Indians will be defined out of existence.” Therefore, blood quantum policies have acted as a form of population control — reducing indigenous populations so that it became harder and harder to identify as native. Using both reconciliation and blood quantum policies the the U.S. government was able to delegitimize Native identity and emphasize assimilation into the settler state.
In many ways reconciliation policies were a response to the accumulation of the following colonial practices of the settler state: forced indentured servitude, land removal, changes in land ownership, economic surveillance, recognition regulations, and blood quantum standards. Over time these policies created devastating conditions for native communities — lack of resources, employment, community infrastructure and poor health conditions. By the 1950s indigenous infants were dying at a rate two to seven times that of surrounding non-indigenous populations, and diseases were still accounting for half of the deaths of the indigenous population, with indigenous populations living on average to 36 while white Americans were living to sixty-one. Today, American Indians are 177% more likely to die from diabetes, 82% are more likely to die from suicide and infant death rates are 60% higher than for Caucasians. These are the present realities of a long history of colonialism and imperialism.
But, it’s not just American Indians in the United States who are the survivors of these devasting practices. Folks in the Philippines, Dominican Republic, India, Nicaragua, and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico have all been subjected to colonial domination. Moreover, these wars for territory and land have often been fought through the bodies of women and children. And as a result of this domination, people and their families have similarly been displaced, excluded from economic resources, lacked critical health services, and experienced lower rates of mortality. Maybe these countries, territories, and cultures aren’t part of your lineage. But even if that is the case, I would argue that these practices are still just as damaging to you. Why?
Because colonialism is a practice of domination and subordination. Put simply: it allows individuals to use their power to force others to do things they don’t want to do — and in doing so these actions have negative outcomes on the individuals, their families, and future generations. Starting in 1492 American Indians were on the receiving end of this action — but we know from history that there are many different types of groups who have been in the position before and are in this position today. Just because your group is not in the subordinate position now does not mean that at some point in time it won’t be. We have to resist these practices and not celebrate them when they happen to other people, otherwise we are the modern colonizers.
So how do we do that? When our mothers guilt trip us about how important family is? When making sweet potato pie brings us joy? When our jobs finally give us time off and we want to spend that time with our families? I get it. That’s what makes colonialism so powerful and effective.
The truth is there are lots of ways to change this practice and it really depends on you and what you are comfortable with. Maybe it’s simply having a conversation about this history and not letting loved ones dodge the uncomfortable topic. Maybe it’s having a new family tradition, one that doesn’t happen on Thanksgiving and includes food that represents your culture and people. Maybe it’s not celebrating Thanksgiving altogether. Whatever you decide to do — do something. Because the most effective colonizing comes from those who never question, resist or acknowledge it.
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HHS Office of Minority Health