“Spreading Hate” with History? Thanksgiving, Standing Rock and the Colonial Narrative.


I was recently involved in an altercation. That may not be news in itself; after all, I tend to make enemies on a regular basis, largely because of my leftist politics, but, at times, due to a hot-headed personality that sometimes causes me to rage before I think.

But this argument was more interesting than the usual tit-for-tat vindictiveness that often marrs the western political scene. Indeed, it involved a markedly touchy subject for many Americans, that being the holiday otherwise known as “Thanksgiving”. The position I held to, also endorsed by a friend of mine, was that the occasion is a hallmark of colonial hypocrisy, which, in addition to habitually costing the lives of thousands upon thousands of turkeys, is particularly obnoxious this year, given the situation at Standing Rock and the ambivalence of much of the North American population to the ongoing plight of the indigenous community.

By mulling over such minutiae, however, we were accusing of “spreading hate”. “Thanksgiving”, far from being an exercise in hypocrisy and wanton excess, is apparently merely about “coming together” in a spirit of supposedly universal benevolence and gratitude. The fact that the original act of “thanksgiving” was marked, before and after, by violent outbreaks of colonial aggression and ethnic cleansing no longer matters. To recall such events, or indeed to strike an analogy between them and present affairs, is apparently “spreading hate”.

We naturally found this a peculiar argument to make. After all, to remember past events and cite their relevance to ongoing societal/political problems can hardly be considered hateful. To argue as such seems to speak more of desperation than coherent analysis. Could it be that my friend and I had simply touched a nerve, one now particularly sensitive in the American mentality given the ongoing situation at Standing Rock?

The short answer would be in the affirmative. Standing Rock has attractive extensive coverage from the media, with abundant cases of police brutality in the face of peaceful protest portraying a picture strikingly apt in depicting the ongoing reality of American colonialism. To make the connection between such events and the phenomenon of indigenous exclusion and resistance, past and present, is hardly hateful.

Coupled with the rise of Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock is a welcome outbreak of long-suppressed discontent, something that points directly to the reality of modern America and a historical legacy predicated on violence. The indigenous population of the US (and indeed elsewhere) have long endured a tenuous existence, suffering extensive and myriad forms of discrimination and hardship that often appear downplayed or entirely omitted in the popular narrative of American “exceptionalism” and identity. For such issues to again come into the limelight is certainly promising.

Yet Standing Rock isn’t the only recent development in the long history of native resistance. Whilst it may seem somewhat anodyne to mention a book in the context of water cannons, rubber bullets and police thuggery, the 2015 publication of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a most noteworthy breakthrough. This is not some introverted narrative depicting days long past. Intensely relevant to our times and the reality of US aggression across the world, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz does a remarkable job of combining both historical exposition with political analysis, firmly melding together the genocidal hubris of European colonialism with the ideological impetus of modern US imperialism.

But it’s here that things get particularly interesting. Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t shy away from exposing hard truths, from Andrew Jackson’s genocidal campaign against the Cherokee to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. If there is a tale to be told, she does it well, yet this isn’t purely a work of historical narration. Indeed, it’s this fixation on linking such events with 21st century US foreign policy that is strikingly novel.

This is welcome for a number of reasons. For one, there’s often a peculiar fixation within the US “progressive” community on owning up to some of the darker episodes in American history, provided, of course, that such episodes are suitably distant, inert and unlikely to prompt trouble by being discussed. Bring them to life by linking them to current events, however, and the reaction can get quite heated. The accusation that it’s hateful to link Thanksgiving to colonialism is a case in point.

In a similar theme, certain celebrated personalities (generally those labelled “progressive”) are often exempt from any form of criticism whatsoever, presumably due to their status as exemplars of both American exceptionalism and moral integrity. Hillary Clinton’s faux feminism to President Kennedy’s attempted invasion of Cuba and Jimmy Carter’s intentional destabilisation of Afghanistan all spring to mind as particularly objectionable, in large part due to the supposedly ethical credentials of the persons involved. President Obama, being of course an individual who presided over mass deportations, habitual aggression overseas, the expansion of the US’s nuclear arsenal and the situation at Standing Rock itself, is no exception. These four personalities, however, now canonised in the pantheon of “progressive” American politicians, often come across as above reproach. Woe betide those who forget this by citing certain uncomfortable truths about both them as individuals and the country they represent.

Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t appear to stand for any of this. Whilst not dealing with the specifics alluded to above, she skilfully intertwines the exclusion, subjugation and indeed extermination of indigenous people with the prevailing American mindset of uniqueness, overbearing pride and unpardonable hypocrisy. Rather than endorsing the notion that the western “frontier” of days gone by is itself now a non-issue, she aptly demonstrations how the colonial mentality that served for purposes of violent expansionism is still current, albeit it within the context of US world dominance and imperialism. Where as any other history book may detail the past as essentially a series of disconnected events, Dunbar-Ortiz weaves a vibrant exposition strikingly relevant to our times. There is thus no sudden disconnect between the barbarity done at Wounded Knee and subsequent predation across the continent and beyond, from the Philippines, Cuba and Haiti to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This brings me to back to original altercation I was involved in about Thanksgiving. It’s no doubt easy, even desirable, for some to interpret history as being something essentially remote, dry, dead even, and begrudge others for finding it relevant to modernity. Thanksgiving itself, in addition to involving colossal suffering and death for multitudes of turkeys, is symptomatic of the experience of colonialism, massacres and hypocrisy included. It is not “spreading hate” to point that out. Given the unfolding drama at Standing Rock, you could be forgiven for thinking that might be obvious.

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