History calls for reassessment of Thanksgiving
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 21:11
Wherever I go, I am an oppressor. I had three homes, all of them stolen. My paternal grandparents are Moroccan, and on my mother’s side they are from Eastern Europe—Czech, what is now Ukraine. My grandfather’s family home was sold by the village council in his absence, and he received much less than his share was worth. As much as Mohammed V of Morocco was fond of his Jewish subjects, second-class citizenship is not something that you choose, and my grandparents immigrated to Israel in 1949.
They live today in Baka, Jerusalem, in the same house my father was born in. It had belonged to a Palestinian family just a few years before.
My mother’s parents survived the Holocaust. There was nothing for them to return to, so they made a new life at the opposite end of the earth in Sydney, Australia.
That’s where I was born, in a town now called Paddington, on the lands of the Cadigal people of the Eora nation.
Through the town now runs Oxford Street, following one of the tribe’s major tracks. Now, as a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis, I live in Somerville, Mass., in the territory of the Massachusett people: my third theft.
The fact that human history is one of conquest and defeat is not news to me. As a Jew, it is the story of my nation, and its narrative and myth. We conquered and were defeated. We returned and were exiled. We were destroyed and rebuilt and, in the process, we destroyed.
But I also know that what has been is not what ought to have been, but often quite the opposite: practice compassion “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
A week from Thursday, American families and friends will come together to eat.
On the menu will be turkey and pumpkin, in honor of a meal that refugee invaders from England and native Massachusetts never shared. Rather, history tells us the main dish those nights was deer, and potatoes hadn't yet made it that far north. Most revelers won’t give a second thought to the Thanksgiving story, unless perhaps there are young children at the table—childhood is when we hear all of the best fiction.
Fictional, native people are everywhere. They’re in our movies, on our products, in music videos, on sports jerseys, in textbooks, at Halloween parties, standing wooden outside cigar shops and, most of all, in our minds. Native peoples, real actual native peoples, throughout the colonized world are largely invisible.
This is partly because native populations are small, so that most non-natives have no native acquaintances. It is partly due to stereotypes and prejudices that drown out realities. It is partly due to systematic campaigns of delegitimization and official erasure, waged by governments in order to dispossess native peoples of their properties and rights; and the collective desire of the colonizing worldview to leave its injustices firmly in the historical past.
In the past year, the Navajo nation sued Urban Outfitters for trying to profit from their cultural heritage, which is trademarked. A casino development in Taunton, Mass., was nixed because the United States decided that the state was extracting too big of a cut from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
Feathered headdresses became a hipster trend, at once erasing the identities of hundreds of separate native peoples whilst simultaneously blaspheming the sacred importance of such regalia to the nations of the Great Plains.
And native communities continued to rank lower than non-native communities in key health, education and wealth indicators.
The invisibility of native peoples matters: it matters when a native community tries to get necessary services to tackle issues unique to a history of oppression.
It matters when a community tries to have its very existence recognized, its culture respected and a space to practice its beliefs. It matters when your particular unique humanity is not treated seriously, obscured by a mess of caricatures. And that’s saying nothing of restitution, of justice.
Which is why, this Thanksgiving, we should all stop and think: who are we thanking and what are we thankful for?
Are we seriously saying ‘Thank you’ to the Massachusett for aiding the Plymouth settlers, who would then go on to dispossess them?
Or is ours just the naïve thanks of a child, oblivious to the sacrifices involved? And if we are not naïve, how should we show our deep gratitude, how should we honor those that came before us, whose victories and losses are now our blessings? By casting them in our fairytales?
Perhaps we will return the favors, pay forward the debts and actually give our thanks, not just express them. Perhaps we can start by giving up the imaginary, seeking out the real and perhaps finding power in knowledge. Perhaps we can learn what we can do.
Jonathan Hayim Dar is a Ph.D. candidate in Physics.