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Today is National Heritage Day

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Did you know that today is National Heritage Day? It was signed into existence by President Bush last month, and recognizes today, and only today, as a day of recognition for the contributions of Native Americans to the United States. If you do a web search, you will find the same report by Associated Press writer Mary Hudetz republished over and over. How remarkably consistent and sad. It is noted in the article, that the day after Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for the National Heritage Day recognition with the following explanation:
The holiday marks a 1621 feast in which English settlers and Wampanoag Indians celebrated and gave thanks in Massachusetts for their harvest, but it was followed by centuries of battles and tense relations between the United States and tribes.
Mentioned only incidentally; "Thanksgiving is controversial to some people," said Joe Garcia, director of the National Congress of American Indians. However, the connection to Thanksgiving and the attempted genocide of Native Americans is much more direct than that. Thanksgiving was used to celebrate that genocide.
The myth runs that Western Europeans originally came to this land to escape religious persecution. They met a few friendly "Indians," but for the most part were in a hostile land surrounded by hostile savages. While there were not many Indians, they did pose a threat to these innocent, God fearing immigrants (colonizers). Dealing with the hostile natives required "killing a few" and "moving a few." However, even "friendly Indians" proved traitorous and had to be dealt with. Hence, we have the kind Indians that fed the poor pilgrims through their first winter at Plymouth Rock. When the colonists got on their feet they returned the favor, inviting all the Indians to a sumptuous feast - replete with turkey and all the trimmings -- and a good time was had by all. The reality is not as simple and straightforward. There were not very many "Indians" left around Plymouth Rock. While the Pilgrims landed in 1620, they had been preceded by a British expedition in 1614 who took 24 people as slaves and left smallpox behind. By 1617, the population of the coastal tribes had been reduced by over 90%. "John Winthrop, a founder of the Massachusetts Bay colony considered this wave of illness and death to be a divine miracle. He wrote to a friend in England, "But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection." (Revolutionary Worker, 1996) One of the slaves taken in 1614 was Squanto who returned with the Plymouth Pilgrims. They established the Plymouth Plantation on the remains of the Wamponoag village Pawtuxet. Squanto helped the Pilgrims make a treaty with chief Masasoit of the Wamponoags. The Puritans survived and were followed by many other Puritans, and villages and farms expanded, encroaching on the remaining tribal villages. The question arose as to land ownership. Those who argued that the land belonged to the Indians were excommunicated and exiled from the towns. Governor Winthrop determined that the Indians had not subdued the land (put it under cultivation) and so the land was public domain. This meant that land ownership went through the British crown (and the Governor who was crown's representative) rather than through the Tribes already on the land. The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 when the Governor declared a three day feast because the colony survived the winter. The next Thanksgiving was in 1637 [See Box 6.1]. Most of the "Thanksgiving Days" for the next 100 years were declared to celebrate victories against various Native American tribes. "The first national celebration of Thanksgiving was called for by George Washington. And the celebration was made a regular legal holiday by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War (right as he sent troops to suppress the Sioux of Minnesota) (Revolutionary Worker)
Box 6.1 1637 Pequot Massacre Excerpted from a piece by William B. Newell "The year was 1637. ... 700 men, women, and children of the Pequot Tribe gathered for their Annual Green Corn Dance in the area that is now known as Groton, Connecticut. While they were gathered in this place of meeting, they were surrounded and attacked by mercenaries of the English and Dutch. The Indians were ordered from the building as they came forth, they were shot down. The rest were burned alive in the building. The next day, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children."
More innocent immigrants (colonizers) came and settled in, eventually expanding across the "unexplored" (by "whites") country: a land that was empty of all but space and natural resources (and a few hostile Indians). Word of the possibility of empty land ripe for the taking spread across the sea and people of Europe flocked to the opportunity. Wolf, 2008
So it seems entirely consistent that have many decades of covering up "Thanksgiving" and the genocide it came to symbolize, that the U.S. government would select this "Black Friday" as the one time only acknowledgment of Native American contributions to the United States. I am sure that both the Congress and the President saw no irony in the recognition. However, even this backhanded recognition would not have occurred without seven years of effort by Frank Suniga (Mescalero Apache living in Salem, Oregon) and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (reznet). We can hope that this is a first step, and not the last, in recognizing the true history of the United States and the roles of Native Americans historically and contemporarily to this nation. Thank you Mr. Suniga and the Affiliated Tribes for your ongoing efforts for recognition and equality.

 

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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.


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