This hoopla around Turkey Day — this so-called Big Box Store Shuffle and Great American Pig-out Thanksgiving — is a National Day of Mourning.
I was not my history teacher’s favorite student in high school when I wrote essays on my country’s hypocrisy of football, apple pie and Thanksgiving while never facing the genocide against Native Americans. I was called a traitor, self-loathing white and un-American when I pointed out the war against the Indians didn’t officially end until 1924, more than 30 years after the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890).
When I was teaching in El Paso, I got mired in a push to commemorate the “first” thanksgiving here, in Paseo del Norte. El Paso laid claim to the first undocumented/illegal settlement in North America in the form of Conquistadors and Friars.
In 1598, the Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oñate and his army established the first European colony in North America. The settlement was located at San Gabriel near Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, 30 miles north of Santa Fe.
I’ve been there, and the double-edged sword of breaking bread and pavo (turkey) with the Spanish interlopers is quaint for the people of El Paso looking for tourism bucks.
However, like the Plymouth Rock celebration of 1621, this Texas one represents a foreboding of genocide. I’ve been to that “celebration.” This El Paso organization declared this first Thanksgiving took place near San Elizario, Texas. Oñate and his battalion of soldiers, Franciscan missionaries and colonists, celebrated their safe arrival on April 30, 1598.
That same year, the Spanish colonial governor de Oñate put 507 Acoma on trial. Women between 12 and 25 were enslaved for 20 years at the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh. Men over age of 25 had one foot cut off, and younger men were enslaved for 20 years. Oñate was later tried for excessive cruelty.
Switching to my Canadian roots, I absorbed more revised history. As a kid, I learned of that country’s treatment of native peoples since my mother was a journalist in Vancouver who reported on stories about Canada’s maltreatment of their First Nations. On Sept. 30, 2021, Canada established a statutory holiday observation of Orange Shirt Day. This is a remembrance of missing and murdered children from residential schools as well as a process of healing for survivors.
It’s sort of a truth and reconciliation moment to raise consciousness about the residential school system and its impact on Indigenous communities for over a century. Hundreds of children were buried in unmarked graves at just one residential site, where my sister lived, Kamloops, British Columbia. Thousands of other graves are located throughout Canada.
Then, in my Arizona high school days, I was “adopted” by some Apache friends and their families. Starting then — as their aunties and uncles were active in the American Indian Movement and Red Nation — I’d been to various events decrying the Plymouth Rock myth. For me, since age 15, Thanksgiving has been a Day of Mourning for Indigenous Peoples who were devastated by settler colonialism and imperialism.
The National Day of Mourning protest was founded by Wamsutta Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal member, and other Indigenous men and women. In 1970, Wamsutta had been invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to speak at a banquet commemorating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims. The organizers of the banquet thought Wamsutta might deliver an honorific tribute singing the praises of the American settler colonial project. He was not about to thank the Pilgrims for bringing “civilization” to the Wampanoag.
The speech that Wamsutta wrote, which was based on historical fact instead of the hollow fiction portrayed in the Thanksgiving myth, asked fundamental questions: What are the foundational myths of the United States? Who created them and who is erased and harmed?
He detailed how the English before 1620 brought diseases that caused a “Great Dying.” They took Wampanoag people captive, selling them as slaves in Europe for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims robbed Wampanoag graves immediately upon landing in Massachusetts. Yes, there was a meal provided largely by the Wampanoag in 1621, but it was not a “thanksgiving.” Rather, the first official “thanksgiving” (not including the San Elizario one) was declared by the Puritans (not the Pilgrims) in 1637 to celebrate massacring hundreds of Pequot men, women and children on the banks of the Mystic River in Connecticut.
When the organizers of the celebration read the speech, they suppressed it. One of the more powerful messages in it was a collective message of Native American pride: “Our spirit refuses to die,” wrote Wamsutta. “Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting … we stand tall and proud, and before too many moons pass, we'll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.”
Much of these histories — massacres of women and children, the enslavement of men, the amputation of feet, and the death of children ripped from families and forced into these “schools” — cannot be taught in K12, as there are no “trigger warnings” strong enough to “protect” youth from the truth. I’ve had young people complain to administrators for the negative and horrific stories a substitute brings to the high school class.
Going back to mythologies and Disneyfied presentations of history is not just retrograde; it’s dangerous. Having faculty like myself being charged with “teaching anti-white critical race theory junk” is also McCarthyite.
Thank goodness for some of my activist friends in El Paso who years ago did some statue editing: they chopped off the bronze foot of Don Onate as he is poised on a Spanish steed high above his slaves. The foot has never been found.
Paul K. Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” Cirque Press.