Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Day of Thanksgiving: Challenging Colonialist Myth

Thanksgiving in the United States is wrapped in colonialist/nationalist myth that most of us learn from pre-school/day care and on.  I don't think most of us are ever taught the realities of "Thanksgiving;" why the holiday exists, what cultural narratives it perpetuates, what present realities it obscures.  In an annual effort to challenge the fucked up colonial underpinnings of this holiday, I give you the debunking of myths most of us probably learned growing up.

Myth #1: “The First Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.

Fact: No one knows when the “first” thanksgiving occurred. People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. Indigenous nations all over the world have celebrations of the harvest that come from very old traditions; for Native peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but every day, for all the gifts of life. To refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as “The First Thanksgiving” disappears Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children.

Myth #2: The people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims.

Fact: The Plimoth settlers did not refer to themselves as “Pilgrims.” Pilgrims are people who travel for religious reasons, such as Muslims who make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Most of those who arrived here from England were religious dissidents who had broken away from the Church of England. They called themselves “Saints”; others called them “Separatists.” Some of the settlers were “Puritans,” dissidents but not separatists who wanted to “purify” the Church. It wasn’t until around the time of the American Revolution that the name “Pilgrims” came to be associated with the Plimoth settlers, and the “Pilgrims” became the symbol of American morality and Christian faith, fortitude, and family.

Myth #3: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.

Fact: The colonists were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. By 1620, hundreds of Native people had already been to England and back, most as captives; so the Plimoth colonists knew full well that the land they were settling on was inhabited. Nevertheless, their belief system taught them that any land that was “unimproved” was “wild” and theirs for the taking; that the people who lived there were roving heathens with no right to the land. Both the Separatists and Puritans were rigid fundamentalists who came here fully intending to take the land away from its Native inhabitants and establish a new nation, their “Holy Kingdom.” The Plimoth colonists were never concerned with “freedom of religion” for anyone but themselves.

Myth #4: When the “Pilgrims” landed, they first stepped foot on “Plymouth Rock.”

Fact: When the colonists landed, they sought out a sandy inlet in which to beach the little shallop that carried them from the Mayflower to the mainland. This shallop would have been smashed to smithereens had they docked at a rock, especially a Rock. Although the Plimoth settlers built their homes just up the hill from the Rock, William Bradford in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, does not even mention the Rock; writing only that they “unshipped our shallop and drew her on land.” The actual “rock” is a slab of Dedham granodiorite placed there by a receding glacier some 20,000 years ago. It was first referred to in a town surveying record in 1715, almost 100 years after the landing. Since then, the Rock has been moved, cracked in two, pasted together, carved up, chipped apart by tourists, cracked again, and now rests as a memorial to something that never happened.

It’s quite possible that the myth about the “Pilgrims” landing on a “Rock” originated as a reference to the New Testament of the Christian bible, in which Jesus says to Peter, “And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The appeal to these scriptures gives credence to the sanctity of colonization and the divine destiny of the dominant culture. Although the colonists were not dominant then, they behaved as though they were.

Myth #5: The Pilgrims found corn.

Fact: Just a few days after landing, a party of about 16 settlers led by Captain Myles Standish followed a Nauset trail and came upon an iron kettle and a cache of Indian corn buried in the sand. They made off with the corn and returned a few days later with reinforcements. This larger group “found” a larger store of corn, about ten bushels, and took it. They also “found” several graves, and, according to Mourt’s Relation, “brought sundry of the prettiest things away” from a child’s grave and then covered up the corpse. They also “found” two Indian dwellings and “some of the best things we took away with us.”  There is no record that restitution was ever made for the stolen corn, and the Wampanoag did not soon forget the colonists’ ransacking of Indian graves.

Myth #6: Samoset appeared out of nowhere, and along with Squanto became friends with the Pilgrims. Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and joined them at “The First Thanksgiving.”

Fact: Samoset, an eastern Abenaki chief, was the first to contact the Plimoth colonists. He was investigating the settlement to gather information and report to Massasoit, the head sachem in the Wampanoag territory. In his hand, Samoset carried two arrows: one blunt and one pointed. The question to the settlers was: are you friend or foe? Samoset brought Tisquantum (Squanto), one of the few survivors of the original Wampanoag village of Pawtuxet, to meet the English and keep an eye on them. Tisquantum had been taken captive by English captains several years earlier, and both he and Samoset spoke English. Tisquantum agreed to live among the colonists and serve as a translator. Massasoit also sent Hobbamock and his family to live near the colony to keep an eye on the settlement and also to watch Tisquantum, whom Massasoit did not trust. The Wampanoag oral tradition says that Massasoit ordered Tisquantum killed after he tried to stir up the English against the Wampanoag. Massasoit himself lost face after his years of dealing with the English only led to warfare and land grabs. Tisquantum is viewed by Wampanoag people as a traitor, for his scheming against other Native people for his own gain. Massasoit is viewed as a wise and generous leader whose affection for the English may have led him to be too tolerant of their ways.

Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.

Fact: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys.

In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” 

Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.

Fact: It is known that when Massasoit showed up with 90 men and saw there was a party going on, they then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. Though the details of this event have become clouded in secular mythology, judging by the inability of the settlers to provide for themselves at this time and Edward Winslow’s letter of 1622, it is most likely that Massasoit and his people provided most of the food for this “historic” meal.

Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.

Fact: Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump—dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion—cooked, mashed pumpkin. Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season. It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep. There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop. Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to New England until the 18th century, nor did sweet corn. Cranberries would have been too tart to eat without sugar to sweeten them, and that’s probably why they wouldn’t have had pumpkin pie, either. Since the corn of the time could not be successfully popped, there was no popcorn.

Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.

Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians.

Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.

Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Gaza

Watching Israel's latest bombing of Gaza has been heart breaking.

Watching friends and former friends of mine defend it has been sometimes worse.

But, I refuse to be silent, because I think genocide must be opposed under all circumstances.

Even when the victims of genocide aren't "perfect victims," even when their elected governments do things I also think are wrong, like send rockets into populated areas.

As a Jewish Anti-Zionist friend of mine said as we sat lesson planning over dinner, when we both wanted to be out in the streets instead: "yes, rockets are REAL," the VIOLENCE of them is real and that cannot be ignored or minimized... But, without dismissing their violence, let's also recognize that this violence has cost very few people their lives.  Let us also acknowledge that the lives lost to them (as this same friend pointed out) are largely those of the marginalized classes of Israeli society: the poor, the Mizrahi.  That Israel pushes these people outwards as a buffer for its more valued citizens against this violence, as have so many militarized/colonialist societies before them.

And this kind of exploitation and violence practiced on less valued human beings (on both sides of the border) is why (I think) groups like Gaza Youth Breaks Out have said not only "fuck Israel" but "fuck Hamas."  And it is with such groups that I align myself as well.

So yes, the rocket attacks need to end, this bombing has to end, the occupation needs to end.  A free Palestine must emerge.  And I have faith that it will.  I pray that it will.  I pray to the Mother that we will not continue to ignore the genocide of the Palestinian people, as so many other genocides have been and continue to be practiced and validated by governments around the world (including the US...which you'll hear more about in my Thanksgiving post!).

Free Palestine!  Decolonize Everything!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. A time set aside to acknowledge/mourn those we have lost because their bodies and lives as trans people are still so hated in our societies.

Light a candle, say a prayer, take a moment of silence, whatever it is you do.

And don't forget.

The names of those we have lost this year can be read here:

Brandy Martell
Location: Oakland, California
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Date of Death: April 29th, 2012
Brandy was 37 years old.
Rest in Peace.
Rest in Power.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Musings: on black bloc and property destruction and violence

This is something I've been thinking about and trying to figure out for a while.  I'm also extremely nervous posting about it, for a lot of reasons, but I am interested in your thoughts so please feel free to respond (as always I reserve the right to moderate your comment if you just act like a jerk).

So I've finally put together why property destruction in demonstrations coupled with black bloc bothers me so much on a personal/emotional/psychic level.

I'm constantly afraid that destructiveness is going to turn on me.  

It's related to the feeling I get when cat-called or when someone I'm arguing with starts to take that anger out physically (hit a wall, etc.) - that as a woman I am NOT safe in this situation.  That I am a target of this aggressive behavior.  

And not just generally as a woman but also individually as someone whose experiences with violent/hypermasculine behavior has been in the context of people wielding power over me; whether teachers, cops or bullies.  Without knowing/trusting the people in the bloc and fully understanding/knowing beforehand what property they are destroying and why, I experience those moments as an unleashing of destructive feeling/emotion/impulse that I KNOW can turn on me and people like me and people not like me but who are also targeted by hatred/violence/aggressive/hypermasculine/-phobic behavior.

As someone who knows intimately the catharsis of slamming a door or punching a wall, as someone who knows well the symbolic power of smashing/burning/destroying something, it's not the theory of the tactic I really have a problem with, but with the experience of it that I've had over the last year in marches, with people I don't know suddenly performing acts around me that I experience as violence (and the looming police threat around us only magnifies that feeling, at times when they haven't been around I have been noticeably less frightened by these actions).  

Black bloc contributes to this because the masks don't just prevent surveillance by cops but by our ability to see each other.  Most of the time, I don't know if I know these people, much less if I trust them.  And I'm just not naive enough to trust on faith that if they're there in this march with me it actually means we're on the "same side."  

I also don't think I'm the only one having a reaction like this in these crowds, which may contribute to why some others also label these actions "violent."  

And PLEASE don't misconstrue this: on a theoretical and even practical level I don't have any problem with BofA having its windows smashed, they and all others like them have practiced violence on many communities, and the cathartic and symbolic power and the message of those smashed windows is, in my view, potentially really valuable.  

But I would also say that I don't think my reaction to these situations is just "a personal problem" or something like that, and that the way I, and others who have experienced destructive impulses/actions that target us, should be taken into account when these things are planned.  Obviously sometimes the smashing of a window is spontaneous and there is only so much you can do about spontaneous actions, but sometimes it's not.  And in those times shouldn't we know and consent to being in this situation BEFORE it starts happening all around us and we're caught in the middle?  If we are all comrades, aren't those of us for whom that might be triggering owed some sort of warning?  

Or do we just deal with it, or not show up?  Because not showing up is almost where I'm at with anti-capitalist marches because of these experiences, and that sucks, because I am anti-capitalist.  

Obviously, it's quite fashionable right now to hate on black bloc* and property destruction, particularly here in the Bay where those tactics have led to some pretty damned divisive conversations...and I don't really want to add to that? (Which is why I've sat on this piece for weeks, actually).  But once I FINALLY figured this out, I also really, really, wanted to write it out and share it and maybe get others thinking about it too, because it seemed important.

*Obviously not all black blocs practice property destruction and not all property destruction is done by a black bloc, this is simply the context in which I have experienced these moments.  The exception being the black bloc on Move-In Day for Occupy Oakland, which I found really inspiring because they took a really awesome militantly defensive tactic of having shields and protecting people by standing between them and the cops and serving as a kind of wall so medics could get to injured people more easily, etc.  That was great.  I would love to see more of that.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos. 
All Souls Day.

So much love to the Ancestors. 

So much love to those I have known who reside on the other side of the Veil. 
I miss you on a regular basis. 

I hope I make you proud.
And thank you for your guidance.