Collective Amnesia

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(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Hutson Hayward)

Last night we inadvertently caught about 5 minutes of the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving episode, just enough to hear Linus declare: “… We thank God for the opportunity to create the New World for freedom and justice.” Irony much? What an extraordinarily white perspective that does not align with reality. Freedom and Justice for whom?
I often wonder: as North Americans, do we collectively and conveniently choose to forget the genocide of the native peoples living in North America, the use of bio-warfare? Yes, multi-generations of white folk have benefitted from the slaughtering of indigenous populations in North America, from stealing land and causing the loss of many languages and cultures. It is ironic that the early survival of the Plymouth colony depended so heavily on the agricultural and fishing advice of the Wampanoag.
The whole idea of a “first Thanksgiving” is historically murky at best, with both religious and civil harvest festivals easily traceable to the Spanish in St. Augustine and British colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth. The native populations also had histories of harvest festivals, thus rendering a colonizer’s claim of “first” another in a series of misappropriations. Regular Thanksgiving celebrations as fixed civil events became common much later, dating to the 1660s.
As with so much of early colonial American history, most of what we “remember” is filtered through centuries of creative reconstruction – bucolic paintings, myths of noble savages and honest oppressed British outcasts, grade school songs and pageants all become part of the national consciousness. It is understandable that we prefer not to dwell on our collective responsibility for the decimation of whole populations, but it is an important part of our nation’s history. The colonizers’ relationship with the native populations was complex (and occasionally grateful) but seldom benefitted the natives and almost certainly did not involve everybody sharing a lovely meal around a table in peace.
Let us not forget this was no mere land grab but a decimation of Holocaust proportions. Our mistreatment of the indigenous peoples in North America went on well into the 20th Century with the Termination Act, Allotment, and the creation of Boarding Schools where white people chanted what became an anthem: “We must kill the Indian to save the man.”
The root idea of Thanksgiving – shared by the Europeans and the indigenous peoples – as a celebration is a good one. Be thankful for what you have; celebrate the cherished loved ones in your life; take time to remember what is good and bountiful with no expectations of gain other than shared love and thanks. Let us move forward as a nation, correctly learning, remembering, and growing from our history. Let us work hard to return to this spirit of Thanksgiving. It need not be buried in any trivia: upcoming shopping orgies (conspicuous consumption), 437 sporting events, overindulgence for its own sake, or cute “historical” imagery that overlooks a complex history.
In addition to a created culture of overindulgence, sadly, I am painfully reminded of consumerism at the price of humanity. Thanksgiving seems to be inextricably tied to “Black Friday,” where people have to work on Thanksgiving and work absurd hours the Friday after so that corporations might benefit from people NOT earning a living wage.
For now, I will try and focus that we all have people and events in our lives worthy of celebration; that is what we should use today to be truly thankful for. I hope everyone will be able to spend time with cherished loved ones, be it families of origin or families and communities we create, and while we take that time to be grateful, we also look for ways we can actively create space to push against the distortion of history and of mass consumerism. How do we stand in solidarity with those that do not have the privilege of celebrating time with loved ones?

Michael Hulshof-Schmidt teaches Social Justice at the Portland State University School of Social Work. He is the Executive Director of EqualityWorks, NW, a company that provides workshops on racial equity and how to stand in solidarity with targeted populations. You can read more of his work at