As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded of the autumnal harvest time's spiritual significance.
As a time of connectedness, I pause to acknowledge what I have to be thankful for.
However, as one who resides at the intersections of multiple identities—gender, race, sexual orientation, class, to name a few—this Thanksgiving will be challenging for me because I wake up each morning hoping to find the portal to November 7th, the day before the election, to linger and dream and feel safe there a little while longer than where I am presently.
I never thought a 2016 presidential election would have me not only time travel back to the 1950s and 1960s, but also live there for at least the next four years. While this Thanksgiving season might not feel like a cause to celebrate for many of us, I realize for many of my Native American brothers and sisters this holiday has felt this way for centuries, irrespective who was elected as president.
Historically, since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Coles Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning of this U.S. holiday. And for the Wampanoag nation of New England, whose name means “people of the dawn,” this national holiday is a reminder of the real significance of the first Thanksgiving in 1621: it is a symbol of persecution and the genocide of their ancestral nation and culture.
It is a symbol of their long history of bloodshed with European settlers.
This Thanksgiving is particularly powerful when the situation at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is taken into account. The ongoing conflict between the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the Standing Rock Sioux Nation brings what may be viewed as a purely historical confrontation between colonialism and Native American people. The conflict emphasizes the ongoing nature of colonialism’s destructive influences and continued disregard for Native American people, land, treaty agreements, and sovereignty. The Native American people who have been peacefully and prayerfully objecting to the DAPL have been met with violence in many forms.
The Pilgrims, who sought refuge here in America from religious persecution in their homeland, were right in their dogged pursuit of religious liberty. But their actual practice of religious liberty came at the expense of the civil rights of Native Americans.
Case in point: homophobia is not indigenous to Native American culture. Rather, one of the many devastating effects of colonization and Christian missionaries is that Two-Spirit people today may be respected within one tribe yet ostracized in another.
"Homophobia was taught to us as a component of Western education and religion," Navajo anthropologist Wesley Thomas has written. "We were presented with an entirely new set of taboos, which did not correspond to our own models and which focused on sexual behavior rather than the intricate roles Two-Spirit people played. As a result of this misrepresentation, our nations no longer accepted us as they once had."
Traditionally, Two-Spirit people symbolized Native Americans' acceptance and celebration of diverse gender expressions and sexual identities.
They were revered as inherently sacred because they possessed and manifested both feminine and masculine spiritual qualities that they believed bestowed upon them a "universal knowledge" and special spiritual connectedness with the Great Spirit.
The term “Two-Spirit" was coined in the early 1990s at an Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering that was tasked with finding a term that could unite the LGBTQ Native community. The Pilgrims’ animus toward homosexuals, especially Two-Spirit people and LGBTQ Native Americans not only impacted Native American culture, but it also shaped Puritan law and theology.
In the New England states where I live, the anti-sodomy rhetoric had punitive if not deadly consequences. The Massachusetts Bay Code of 1641 called for the death of not only heretics, witches and murderers, but also "sodomites," stating that death would come swiftly to any "man lying with a man as with a woman." And the renowned Puritan pastor and Harvard tutor, the Rev. Samuel Danforth in his 1674 “ fire and brimstone" sermon preached to his congregation that the death sentence for sodomites had to be imposed because it was a biblical mandate.
The Pilgrims' fervor for religious liberty was devoid of an ethic of accountability.
Their actions did not set up the conditions requisite for moral liability and legal justice. Instead, the actions of the Pilgrims brought about the genocide of a people, a historical amnesia of the event, and an annual parade and national celebration of Thanksgiving for their arrival.
This Thanksgiving might not look hopeful for many but I draw my strength and models of justice from the interconnections and intersections of various struggles and activist groups across the nation as well as the world.
For example, I draw hope from the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), a Native-led organization of Native people that supports Indigenous struggles in New England and throughout the Americas, as well as the struggles of communities of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims, women, and yes, the descendants of the Pilgrim refugees who arrived in the 1600s.
“Most pilgrims would have died during the harsh winter had it not been for the open arms of the Native Americans,” Taylor Bell wrote in ’The Hypocrisy Of Refusing Refugees at Thanksgiving.”
So Trump’s presidency worries me. But I’m optimistic in spite of this difficult and divided time America is in because the words and acts of justice spring up organically in places and times and even in people I least expect it from.
The struggle continues on!
Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who portrays Aaron Burr in the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” recently told Vice President-elect Mike Pence during his night at the theater:
We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us—our planet, our children, our parents—or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us… This wonderful American story is told by a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
It is in that spirit of our connected struggles for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we focus not solely on the story of Plymouth Rock, but also as Americans on creating this nation as a solid rock with a multicultural and inclusive foundation.
And in so doing, it helps us to remember and respect the struggles that this nation’s foremothers and forefathers endured, and also helps us to remember and respect the present-day struggle many disenfranchised communities across the country face—especially our Native American people, particularly on Thanksgiving Day.
From Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock, many of these struggles and issues remain unresolved to this day.
This Thanksgiving is a time to look deeply into the issues, engage in genuine and difficult conversations, and find lasting solutions that bring honour to Native Americans and non-natives alike.
With edits and contributions from Lynn Young (Lakota)
“Get woke” and “Stay woke” refers to being aware of what’s going on around you in regards to racism and social injustice issues. “Woke” is the past tense of “wake,” and it refers to waking up to what's going on around us
Photo via flickr user Joe Catron