New England winters suck.
The Pilgrims found this out the hard way. They spent a miserable first winter aboard the Mayflower, desperate and diseased. In the end, half of them perished. After they finally moved ashore in the spring, needing to survive off of the resources of an unknown land, the next winter loomed — an existential threat. Cold and alone, they faced their earthly doom.
But in a fortuitous visit, Samoset, an Abenaki, and Tisquantum, a Wampanoag, made contact with the Europeans in order to secure a military alliance against the Narragansett to the west. In exchange, Tisquantum taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, extract sap from trees and avoid poisonous plants. That autumn — when the first corn harvest astonishingly proved successful — William Bradford, governor of the colony, organized a feast, inviting Native American allies.
To this day we celebrate Thanksgiving, an opportunity for family and friends to gather and for us to offer gratitude for the myriad blessings that fill our lives. The success of that colony encouraged additional European immigration, founding colonies up the Eastern Seaboard, including our own New Haven. Every year at our tables we thank the Native Americans for literally saving our Puritan founders. It’s the birth of a nation, our nation. But our actions betray our words.
In fact, since that first feast, the colonization of the American landscape, and the establishment and expansion of the United States, has attempted to destroy the indigenous cultures of America. Methods range from the accidental to the genocidal, with extermination policies especially common in New England: the United States government paid for Indian scalps. It is a bloody, at times almost unimaginable history, as hellish as the bloody lash of slavery.
But so few Americans actually square with the reality of the aftermath of that first Thanksgiving because that history has been concealed and erased. I come from southeastern Pennsylvania, once the land of the Lenape — today no traces remain. Common imagination relegates them to relics of prehistory. We often view Native Americans as a part of the landscape, no different from wildlife.
When I spoke with Kelly Fayard, dean of the Native American Cultural Center, she reminded me that this history is also a story of resilience. Tribes today in Connecticut and all over the U.S. are thriving culturally and economically. For example, a Wampanoag tribe in Martha’s Vineyard provides stewardship to 500 acres of land as well as health, education and housing services. But it remains undeniable that we stand upon the waste of four centuries of oppression, dehumanization and murder. In the face of these monstrosities, our current perspective on Native Americans is pragmatically insufficient and morally wrong.
Native peoples developed and preserved the American landscape through sophisticated methods cultivated over centuries — shaping a landscape quickly defiled by European immigrants. At minimum, we must protect the landscapes that are often an essential component of Native American spiritual identities. But until 1978, the First Amendment did not protect Native American religions — if they had been, development would not have proceeded in the same way. The notion that humans and the environment are interdependent — an idea that the globalized world seems to be discovering nearly too late — we can learn simply by looking to the forefathers of our landscapes in the same way we look to the American founding fathers for methods of democratic governance.
The Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota is a paragon of today’s manifestation of these issues. The DAPL, originally planned for construction near the predominantly white town of Bismarck, North Dakota, was relocated just north of Standing Rock Indian Reservation because the residents of Bismarck feared for their own health and safety. As a result, the DAPL now threatens the water quality of Standing Rock while also intruding on sacred Sioux burial grounds. This is an act of injustice and inhumanity. If we allow the DAPL to be built, we will be once again complicit in the erasure and destruction of our heritage.
How, then, should we think about Thanksgiving? November, after all, is American Indian Heritage Month. We must use Thanksgiving to reflect on our relationships with Native Americans and the landscape that we stole from them by force. Standing with Standing Rock must be the first of a thousand acts. We must educate ourselves about Native Americans. We must find new ways to connect.
As America continues to diversify and grow, each individual that comes into this country — whether by birth or immigration — must recognize our land and from whom it came. This Thanksgiving, begin by marking for yourself a path towards a more powerful American identity — one in harmony with not only all the ingredients of the world’s greatest melting pot, but also with the far more solid ground on which it stands.
Eric Margolis is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .