Thanksgiving is often considered one of the most wholesome holidays — in part because it has evolved into a day characterized by gratitude, self-reflection and appreciation of family and friends. It is also held in such high esteem because the traditional narrative teaches Americans that Thanksgiving was a time of peaceful unity between the indigenous people of this country and British colonialists. This narrative is, in reality, a myth that has been taught over generations in an attempt to relieve ourselves of the guilt of our nation’s history and our treatment of indigenous people.
It is true that in 1621, pilgrims and Native Americans gathered at Plymouth to share a feast and – in indigenous tradition – give thanks for the land and the harvest. But this was not the end of the story, and for Native Americans it definitely did not end happily ever after. For Native Americans, Thanksgiving marked the beginning of a tragedy.
This past year, almost 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, Native Americans are continuing to fight for the little land that this nation has left them. The Standing Rock protests follow the proposed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which, if completed, will move 470,000 barrels of oil across four states each day. The aim of the protesters in North Dakota is twofold: to protect the Standing Rock reservation’s water source from an oil spill and to protect the sacred lands of the Sioux that inhabit this area.
In many ways, these protests are historic. The scope of the demonstrations is unprecedented; people have come to Standing Rock from all over the world in an effort to show their support.
Yet, in many ways, this situation has repeated itself hundreds of times over the course of history. Between 1776 and 1887, the U.S. seized over 1.5 billion acres of indigenous peoples’ lands through treaties and executive orders; since then, Native Americans have continually struggled to maintain control over their land in the face of both the U.S. government and large corporations.
When the Keystone XL pipeline was being debated in 2015, various Native American tribes and environmental groups came together in protest. While President Barack Obama ended up vetoing the Keystone XL project, those who fought for it were wary of what was to come. Following Obama’s decision to veto, A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, stated that supporters should “keep the coalitions together, because there are more pipelines proposed, and we must protect our Mother Earth for our future generations.”
It is clear that this dark history continues as police used rubber bullets, water hoses and tear gas against hundreds of unarmed protesters last Sunday, injuring at least 160 of them.
This past week, while the majority of Americans spent Thanksgiving with their families, hundreds of Native Americans held a National Day of Mourning. This annual day of grieving, which takes place at Plymouth on the same day as Thanksgiving, is an opportunity for indigenous people to share their voices on a day that essentially celebrates their silence. On Thanksgiving Day, the protestors at Standing Rock held a peaceful prayer circle, inclusive of all that were there, demonstrating exemplary behavior in the face of adversity.
In celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday and thinking about its historical importance, it is imperative that we, at the very least, all reflect on the situation at Standing Rock. As members of the Tufts community, we can stand up for those who are protesting by donating to the Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Tufts’ supply drive this Friday at the LGBT Center and by supporting the TCU Senate resolution calling on Tufts to divest from companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The land of Standing Rock rightly belongs to the Native American people of the Standing Rock reservation, and it is tragically ironic that the day after Thanksgiving, federal officials decided to close access to one of the protest’s camping sites. It is our time and place to defend Standing Rock.