I Hate Thanksgiving
By Mitchel Cohen
27 November , 2003
Howard Zinn tells us how Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full
of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and
swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus
and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks
ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. Columbus later wrote
of this in his log. Here is what he wrote:
us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which
they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly
traded everything they owned. They were well-built, with good bodies
and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know them,
for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves
out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of sugar
cane. They would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate
them all and make them do whatever we want."
And so the conquest
began, and the Thanotocracy -- the regime of death -- was inaugurated
on the continent the Indians called "Turtle Island."
You probably already
know a good piece of the story: How Columbus's Army took Arawak and
Taino people prisoners and insisted that they take him to the source
of their gold, which they used in tiny ornaments in their ears. And
how, with utter contempt and cruelty, Columbus took many more Indians
prisoners and put them aboard the Nina and the Pinta -- the Santa Maria
having run aground on the island of Hispañola (today, the Dominican
Republic and Haiti). When some refused to be taken prisoner, they were
run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta
set sail for the Azores and Spain. During the long voyage, many of the
Indian prisoners died. Here's part of Columbus's report to Queen Isabella
and King Ferdinand of Spain:
are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has
not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they
have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone."
Columbus concluded his report by asking for a little help from the King
and Queen, and in return he would bring them "as much gold as they
need, and as many slaves as they ask."
to the New World -- "new" for Europeans, that is -- with 17
ships and more than 1,200 men. Their aim was clear: Slaves, and gold.
They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as
captives. But word spread ahead of them. By the time they got to Fort
Navidad on Haiti, the Taino had risen up and killed all the sailors
left behind on the last voyage, after they had roamed the island in
gangs raping women and taking children and women as slaves. Columbus
later wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending
all the slaves that can be sold." The Indians began fighting back,
but were no match for the Spaniard conquerors, even though they greatly
outnumbered them. In eight years, Columbus's men murdered more than
100,000 Indians on Haiti alone. Overall, dying as slaves in the mines,
or directly murdered, or from diseases brought to the Caribbean by the
Spaniards, over 3 million Indian people were murdered between 1494 and
What Columbus did
to the Arawaks of the Bahamas and the Taino of the Caribbean, Cortez
did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English
settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.
Literally millions of native peoples were slaughtered. And the gold,
slaves and other resources were used, in Europe, to spur the growth
of the new money economy rising out of feudalism. Karl Marx would later
call this "the primitive accumulation of capital." These were
the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business,
politics and culture that would dominate the world for the next five
All of this were
the preconditions for the first Thanksgiving. In the North American
English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Columbus had set it
in the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any permanent
English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with
seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of them
stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian
The Jamestown colony
was established in Virginia in 1607, inside the territory of an Indian
confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English
settle on his people's land, but did not attack. And the English began
starving. Some of them ran away and joined the Indians, where they would
at least be fed. Indeed, throughout colonial times tens of thousands
of indentured servants, prisoners and slaves -- from Wales and Scotland
as well as from Africa -- ran away to live in Indian communities, intermarry,
and raise their children there.
In the summer of
1610 the governor of Jamestown colony asked Powhatan to return the runaways,
who were living fully among the Indians. Powhatan left the choice to
those who ran away, and none wanted to go back. The governor of Jamestown
then sent soldiers to take revenge. They descended on an Indian community,
killed 15 or 16 Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing
around the village, took the female leader of the tribe and her children
into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard and shooting
out their brains in the water. The female leader was later taken off
the boat and stabbed to death.
By 1621, the atrocities
committed by the English had grown, and word spread throughout the Indian
villages. The Indians fought back, and killed 347 colonists. From then
on it was total war. Not able to enslave the Indians the English aristocracy
decided to exterminate them.
And then the Pilgrims
When the Pilgrims
came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory
inhabited by tribes of Indians. The story goes that the Pilgrims, who
were Christians of the Puritan sect, were fleeing religious persecution
in Europe. They had fled England and went to Holland, and from there
sailed aboard the Mayflower, where they landed at Plymouth Rock in what
is now Massachusetts.
or not, they immediately turned to their religion to rationalize their
persecution of others. They appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: "Ask
of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and
the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." To justify
their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: "Whosoever
therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they
that resist shall receive to themselves damnation."
The Puritans lived
in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now southern
Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they
wanted their land. And they seemed to want to establish their rule firmly
over Connecticut settlers in that area.
In 1636 an armed
expedition left Boston to attack the Narragansett Indians on Block Island.
The English landed and killed some Indians, but the rest hid in the
thick forests of the island and the English went from one deserted village
to the next, destroying crops. Then they sailed back to the mainland
and raided Pequot villages along the coast, destroying crops again.
The English went
on setting fire to wigwams of the village. They burned village after
village to the ground. As one of the leading theologians of his day,
Dr. Cotton Mather put it: "It was supposed that no less than 600
Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day." And Cotton Mather,
clutching his bible, spurred the English to slaughter more Indians in
the name of Christianity.
Three hundred thousand
Indians were murdered in New England over the next few years. It is
important to note: The ordinary Englishmen did not want this war and
often, very often, refused to fight. Some European intellectuals like
Roger Williams spoke out against it. And some erstwhile colonists joined
the Indians and even took up arms against the invaders from England.
It was the Puritan elite who wanted the war, a war for land, for gold,
for power. And, in the end, the Indian population of 10 million that
was in North America when Columbus came was reduced to less than one
The way the different
Indian peoples lived -- communally, consensually, making decisions through
tribal councils, each tribe having different sexual/marriage relationships,
where many different sexualities were practiced as the norm -- contrasted
dramatically with the Puritan's Christian fundamentalist values. For
the Puritans, men decided everything, whereas in the Iroquois federation
of what is now New York state women chose the men who represented the
clans at village and tribal councils; it was the women who were responsible
for deciding on whether or not to go to war. The Christian idea of male
dominance and female subordination was conspicuously absent in Iroquois
There were many
other cultural differences: The Iroquois did not use harsh punishment
on children. They did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training,
but gradually allowed the child to learn to care for themselves. And,
they did not believe in ownership of land; they utilized the land, lived
on it. The idea of ownership was ridiculous, absurd. The European Christians,
on the other hand, in the spirit of the emerging capitalism, wanted
to own and control everything -- even children and other human beings.
The pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, thus advised his parishioners:
"And surely there is in all children a stubbornness, and stoutness
of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place,
be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education
being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their
time, be built thereon." That idea sunk in.
One colonist said
that the plague that had destroyed the Patuxet people -- a combination
of slavery, murder by the colonists and disease -- was "the Wonderful
Preparation of the Lord Jesus Christ by His Providence for His People's
Abode in the Western World." The Pilgrims robbed Wampanoag graves
for the food that had been buried with the dead for religious reasons.
Whenever the Pilgrims realized they were being watched, they shot at
the Wampanoags, and scalped them. Scalping had been unknown among Native
Americans in New England prior to its introduction by the English, who
began the practice by offering the heads of their enemies and later
"What do you
think of Western Civilization?" Mahatma Gandhi was asked in the
1940s. To which Gandhi replied: "Western Civilization? I think
it would be a good idea." And so enters "Civilization,"
the civilization of Christian Europe, a "civilizing force"
that couldn't have been more threatened by the beautiful anarchy of
the Indians they encountered, and so slaughtered them.
These are the Puritans
that the Indians "saved", and whom we celebrate in the holiday,
Thanksgiving. Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, a member of the Patuxet
Indian nation. Samoset, of the Wabonake Indian nation, which lived in
Maine. They went to Puritan villages and, having learned to speak English,
brought deer meat and beaver skins for the hungry, cold Pilgrims. Tisquantum
stayed with them and helped them survive their first years in their
New World. He taught them how to navigate the waters, fish and cultivate
corn and other vegetables. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed
how other plants could be used as medicines. He also negotiated a peace
treaty between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, head chief of the Wampanoags,
a treaty that gave the Pilgrims everything and the Indians nothing.
And even that treaty was soon broken. All this is celebrated as the
My own feeling?
The Indians should have let the Pilgrims die. But they couldn't do that.
Their humanity made them assist other human beings in need. And for
that beautiful, human, loving connection they -- and those of us who
are not Indian as well -- paid a terrible price: The genocide of the
original inhabitants of Turtle Island, what is now America.
Let's look at one
example of the Puritan values -- which were not, I repeat, the values
of the English working class values that we "give thanks for"
on this holiday. The example of the Maypole, and Mayday.
In 1517, 25 years
after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, the English working class
staged a huge revolt. This was done through the guilds. King Henry VIII
brought Lombard bankers from Italy and merchants from France in order
to undercut wages, lengthen hours, and break the guilds. This alliance
between international finance, national capital and military aristocracy
was in the process of merging into the imperialist nation-state.
The young workers
of London took their revenge upon the merchants. A secret rumor said
the commonality -- the vision of communal society that would counter
the rich, the merchants, the industrialists, the nobility and the landowners
-- would arise on May Day. The King and Lords got frightened -- householders
were armed, a curfew was declared. Two guys didn't hear about the curfew
(they missed Dan Rather on t.v.). They were arrested. The shout went
out to mobilize, and 700 workers stormed the jails, throwing bricks,
hot water, stones. The prisoners were freed. A French capitalist's house
Then came the repression:
Cannons were fired into the city. Three hundred were imprisoned, soldiers
patrolled the streets, and a proclamation was made that no women were
allowed to meet together, and that all men should "keep their wives
in their houses." The prisoners were brought through the streets
tied in ropes. Some were children. Eleven sets of gallows were set up
throughout the city. Many were hanged. The authorities showed no mercy,
but exhibited extreme cruelty.
Thus the dreaded
Thanatocracy, the regime of death, was inaugurated in answer to proletarian
riot at the beginning of capitalism. The May Day riots were caused by
expropriation (people having been uprooted from their lands they had
used for centuries in common), and by exploitation (people had no jobs,
as the monarchy imported capital). Working class women organizers and
healers who posed an alternative to patriarchal capitalism -- were burned
at the stake as witches. Enclosure, conquest, famine, war and plague
ravaged the people who, in losing their commons, also lost a place to
put their Maypole.
Suddenly, the Maypole
became a symbol of rebellion. In 1550 Parliament ordered the destruction
of Maypoles (just as, during the Vietnam war, the U.S.-backed junta
in Saigon banned the making of all red cloth, as it was being sewn into
the blue, yellow and red flags of the National Liberation Front).
In 1664, near the
end of the Puritans' war against the Pequot Indians, the Puritans in
England abolished May Day altogether. They had defeated the Indians,
and they were attempting to defeat the growing proletarian insurgency
at home as well.
of the Bible were burned, its last book, Revelation, became an anti-authoritarian
manual useful to those who would turn the Puritan world upside down,
such as the Family of Love, the Anabaptists, the Diggers, Levellers,
Ranters, and Thomas Morton, the man who in 1626 went to Merry Mount
in Quincy Mass, and with his Indian friends put up the first Maypole
in America, in contempt of Puritan rule.
The Puritans destroyed
it, exiled him, plagued the Indians, and hanged gay people and Quakers.
Morton had come over on his own, a boat person, an immigrant. So was
Anna Lee, who came over a few years later, the Manchester proletarian
who founded the communal living, gender separated Shakers, who praised
God in ecstatic dance, and who drove the Puritans up the wall.
The story of the
Maypole as a symbol of revolt continued. It crossed cultures and continued
through the ages. In the late 1800s, the Sioux began the Ghost Dance
in a circle, "with a large pine tree in the center, which was covered
with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds,
claws, and horns, all offerings to the Great Spirit." They didn't
call it a Maypole and they danced for the unity of all Indians, the
return of the dead, and the expulsion of the invaders on a particular
day, the 4th of July, but otherwise it might as well have been a Mayday!
Wovoka, a Nevada
Paiute, started it. Expropriated, he cut his hair. To buy watermelon
he rode boxcars to work in the Oregon hop fields for small wages, exploited.
The Puget Sound Indians had a new religion -- they stopped drinking
alcohol, became entranced, and danced for five days, jerking twitching,
calling for their land back, just like the Shakers! Wovoka took this
back to Nevada: "All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing."
Soon they were. Porcupine took the dance across the Rockies to the Sioux.
Red Cloud and Sitting Bull advanced the left foot following with the
right, hardly lifting the feet from the ground. The Federal Agents banned
the Ghost Dance! They claimed it was a cause of the last Sioux outbreak,
just as the Puritans had claimed the Maypole had caused the May Day
proletarian riots, just as the Shakers were dancing people into communality
and out of Puritanism.
On December 29 1890
the Government (with Hotchkiss guns throwing 2 pound explosive shells
at 50 a minute -- always developing new weapons!) massacred more than
300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee. As in the Waco holocaust,
or the bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia, the State disclaimed responsibility.
The Bureau of Ethnology sent out James Mooney to investigate. Amid Janet
Reno-like tears, he wrote: "The Indians were responsible for the
In 1970, the town
of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts held, as it does each year, a Thanksgiving
Ceremony given by the townspeople. There are many speeches for the crowds
who attend. That year -- the year of Nixon's secret invasion of Cambodia;
the year 4 students were massacred at Kent State and 13 wounded for
opposing the war; the year they tried to electrocute Black Panthers
Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins -- the Massachusetts Department of Commerce
asked the Wampanoag Indians to select a speaker to mark the 350th anniversary
of the Pilgrims' arrival, and the first Thanksgiving.
Frank James, who
is a Wampanoag, was selected. But before he was allowed to speak he
was told to show a copy of his speech to the white people in charge
of the ceremony. When they saw what he had written, they would not allow
him to read it.
First, the genocide.
Then, the suppression of all discussion about it.
What do Indian people
find to be Thankful for in this America? What does anyone have to be
Thankful for in the genocide of the Indians, that this "holyday"
commemorates? As we sit with our families on Thanksgiving, taking any
opportunity we can to get out of work or off the streets and be in a
warm place with people we love, we realize that all the things we have
to be thankful for have nothing at all to do with the Pilgrims, nothing
at all to do with Amerikan history, and everything to do with the alternative,
anarcho-communist lives the Indian peoples led, before they were massacred
by the colonists, in the name of privatization of property and the lust
for gold and labor.
Yes, I am an American.
But I am an American in revolt. I am revolted by the holiday known as
Thanksgiving. I have been accused of wanting to go backwards in time,
of being against progress. To those charges, I plead guilty. I want
to go back in time to when people lived communally, before the colonists'
Christian god was brought to these shores to sanctify their terrorism,
their slavery, their hatred of children, their oppression of women,
their holocausts. But that is impossible. So all I look forward to the
utter destruction of the apparatus of death known as Amerika -- not
the people, not the beautiful land, but the machinery, the State, the
capitalism, the Christianity and all that it stands for. I look forward
to a future where I will have children with Amerika, and ... they will
be the new Indians.
Mitchel Cohen is
co-editor of "Green Politix", the national newspaper of the
Greens/Green Party USA, www.greenparty.org, and organizes with the NoSpray
Coalition, www.nospray.org and the Brooklyn Greens.