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The First Thanksgiving: Prelude to Genocide

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mary Shaw     Permalink
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As the American Thanksgiving holiday approaches, our minds wander to idyllic images of Pilgrims and Indians peacefully sharing a feast in celebration of the fall harvest. This November 24th, as we break bread with our families and friends, let us take some time to reflect on the fate of Native Americans in the centuries that followed the first Thanksgiving.

This nation was founded on principles of inalienable human rights and civil liberties. It would appear, however, that initially those guarantees applied only to those fortunate enough to have been born white European-Americans. As African-Americans remained enslaved in this country's early years, Native Americans didn't have it much better, enduring centuries of cultural, political, and economic repression, forced relocation, confinement to reservations, massacres by federal troops, and broken treaties.

As European-American settlers pushed westward in the late 18th century and through the 19th century, land theft of a massive scale ensued. In 1830, the 23rd Congress of the United States passed the "Indian Removal Act", legitimizing the land greed of the white settlers and resulting in the death or displacement of countless Native Americans. This legislation was signed into law by none other than all-American action hero President Andrew Jackson himself. (Think of that when you pull out your twenty-dollar bill to pay for your Thanksgiving turkey.)

Fast forward to the 20th century to find that things hadn't gotten much better. Beginning with President Ulysses Grant's 1869 "Peace Policy" and continuing well into the 20th century, more than 100,000 Native Americans were forced by the U.S. government to attend Christian boarding schools that tried to school, and sometimes beat, the Indian out of them. These children were separated from their families for most of the year and forcibly stripped of their language, culture, and customs in an effort to "kill the Indian and save the man". Virtually imprisoned in the schools, the children experienced a devastating litany of abuses, from forced assimilation and grueling labor to widespread sexual and physical abuse. School officials routinely forced children to do arduous work to raise money for staff salaries, and "leased out" students during the summers to farm or work as domestics for white families. In addition to bringing in income, the hard labor prepared the children to take their place in white society - the only one open to them - on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Those who remained on the reservations faced their own set of challenges. This form of apartheid separated Native Americans physically, socially, and economically from the world outside the reservation. Traditionally nomadic hunter societies were forced to learn to farm for their subsistence. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, the Native American population came to face the highest rates of poverty, suicide, alcoholism, high school drop-out, and teen pregnancy amongst ethnic groups in the U.S. - a trend that continues to this day.

This Thanksgiving, please take a moment to reflect on the fact that Native American history comprises so much more than just some stereotype caricature sidekicks to macho cowboy movie heroes. They are human beings, and they were here first.

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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