On Thanksgiving, recognize the contributions of Native Americans


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In 1789, President George Washington issued a Thanksgiving decree ordering a of national observance Nov. 26. The tableau entrenched in the American imagination of feasting pilgrims and compassionate New England Indians who saved newcomers from starvation is absent from the executive proclamation. Rather, Washington, like others before him, asked that Americans “[acknowledge] with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

The former speculator of Indian lands and (Iroquois) “town destroyer” continued, supplicating God “to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.” The referenced Sovereigns and Nations are unknown, but his actions as colonial leader and as president tell us he did not mean tribal nations.

We know that Indians and newcomers, or “visitors” as one elderly Northwest Coast Indian woman calls non-Natives, shared meals. When not feasting, however, colonizers — Spanish, French, English, other Europeans, and finally the United States — in the name of the Doctrine of Discovery, papal legal reasoning, and Manifest Destiny carried out inhumane acts of violence against scores of Indian people, villages, and tribes.

The Doctrine of Discovery imposed a kind of order on the parceling of Others’ lands during the discovery era. Native resistance was met with swift and violent death, deceptive paper signings, and vague explanations about God’s will. But the Doctrine remains the underlying principle that governs U.S. policies toward Indian tribes today, and its tenets have shaped persistent American attitudes and actions toward Native people.

Non-Natives frequently interpret Native behavior toward the colonizers from 1492 to the present as “naïve.” Why would Native people share their knowledge with intruders when it would only ensure their survival? The naïve assumption belies the difference between us and them. Native social values then and now are centered on a view of humanity, the natural world, and the spiritual realm as a whole.

This is not the distorted talk of new age-ism or the garbled Indian-speak of faux sweat lodge profit-makers and cultural appropriators. Native social values, based on an alternate calculation, have always been simply counterintuitive to a capitalist mind. The “kindness” of Native nations, sovereign then and sovereign today, not to mention their lands, rivers, minerals, timber, and other resources — for which they received virtually nothing — are the original source of United States “greatness.” Theft and exploitation of indigenous resources and labor, human-rights violations, and commodified African bodies, without which there would be no American ingenuity, created the big boost to U.S. world domination.

This Thanksgiving, I exhort Americans to honor their first president’s decree with petitions to the government of his and other founders’ creation “to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord.” Recognize our treaties, humanity, and agency in your ancestors’ survival. Absent that, we will continue to meet you, treaties in hand, in the courts of the land.

Jacki Rand (Choctaw) is a UI associate professor of history.

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