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What's Thanksgiving really all about?

November 22nd, 2009

Mary Shaw

The Native Americans who survived were herded onto reservations, where they faced their own set of challenges. This form of apartheid separated Native Americans physically, socially, and economically from the world outside the reservation.

The Thanksgiving holiday is just around the corner, but this year I am tempted to skip the festivities. While some Americans mark this holiday as an occasion to give thanks and gratitude for their perceived blessings, that benign and admirable purpose too often takes a back seat to what Thanksgiving has become in recent decades: a celebration of gluttony and excess.

In conversations about the upcoming holiday, I hear Americans talk excitedly about their plans to overeat -- to eat so much that they've built a post-meal nap into their annual Thanksgiving routine. It's all about the feast. It's all about stuffing themselves fuller than Grandma stuffed the turkey. More mashed potatoes. Extra gravy. A second slice of pie. Then sleep it off. And they're proud of it.

Meanwhile, also here in the United States, millions of people are going to sleep hungry. According to a report from the Department of Agriculture for 2008, 49 million Americans lacked dependable access to adequate food last year, including nearly 17 million children -- more than one in five across the U.S. It can't be any better this year, given the economic crisis. How then can gluttony be celebrated like a sport on November 26th?

There is a rationalization, if you want to call it that. People justify the annual gorging by citing the story of a harvest feast that the Pilgrims shared with Native Americans at Plymouth in 1621. That's all very quaint and sweet, but also naive. And this leads to another reason why I'm uncomfortable with the Thanksgiving holiday: That Pilgrim feast was a prelude to genocide.

As African Americans remained enslaved in this country's early years, Native Americans didn't have it much better. The European "settlers" wasted no time in stealing the land out from under the indigenous peoples -- almost as fast as they spread the smallpox and other epidemic diseases that they brought with them to the new world. In 1830, as the "settlers" pushed westward, 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.)

The Native Americans who survived were herded onto reservations, where they 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, and teen pregnancy amongst ethnic groups in the U.S. -- a trend that continues to this day. All because of the selfish, imperialistic dreams of the white man.

Happy Thanksgiving, white America. Enjoy your feast. And be thankful that you were not born on a Native American reservation or in captivity on a slave owner's plantation.

Might does not make right. And so may the laws of karma ultimately even the score.

Meantime, may those with a conscience celebrate the holiday as it was intended -- to join with friends and family in appreciation of what really matters in life: love, health, sharing, and caring.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com

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