Written by Jeff Koetje, MD, AMSA Reproductive Health Programming Strategist.
Outside of AMSA, Jeff serves as Curator of Critical Epistemologies and Meaning-Making for a center of excellence for liberationist theologies, the Activist Theology Project.
Feasting on the Spoils of Genocide:
Reflecting on the Mythology and Meaning of Thanksgiving Day as a White Person
As I write this, we are less than one week away from the US federal holiday of Thanksgiving Day, falling this year on Thursday, the 24th of November. It is also the case that, since 1990, November has been recognized in the US as Native American Heritage Month. This year, the month of November takes on yet another significance for and in relation to Indigenous people’s experiences within a reality defined and shaped by colonial power. I’m referring to the US Supreme Court hearing that was just held on November 9 regarding the federal lawsuit, Brackeen v. Haaland (2021), a case which has the potential to lead to the reversal of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. This law (ICWA) works to ensure that Indigenous children are not arbitrarily removed from their homes, or separated from their parents, relatives, and communities. It was passed as a response to the recognition that Indigenous families were being broken apart by the frequent removal of their children, which significantly disrupts – or severs entirely – the right of a people to preserve and perpetuate their culture from one generation to the next.
Why do I bring this up?
Because the arbitrary and enforced separation of children from their families is one of the recognized forms of genocide. And because here in the US we are about to observe a holiday that intentionally obscures the terrible truth of the genocide(s) upon which the societies that have colonized Turtle Island (so-called “North America”) are based. And in the very month designated to acknowledge Native American Heritage, the US Supreme Court has heard the case that may result in the reversal of protections against the genocidal, forced transfer of Indigenous children from Indigenous families to non-Indigenous families.
I’m thinking about the confluence of all these events – Thanksgiving, Native American Heritage Month, and the Supreme Court case – and reflecting on them through the lenses of analysis that I use, especially in my professional role in AMSA’s Reproductive Health Project. Our project seeks to do our work in ever-deepening community, alignment, and accountability with the Reproductive Justice Movement, led primarily by Black and Indigenous women. What this means, for me (a cis white Euro-American male) – in ways deeply personal and professional – is that I have a moral, ethical, and human obligation to interrogate systems of violence and oppression, and to question the myths that we tell ourselves to dress up, hide, or otherwise obscure these systems of violence and oppression.
Over the past several weeks in particular, I’ve been sitting with myself in the uncomfortable space of perceiving more fully the truth that the genocide of Indigenous People through the colonization of this land is not merely a historical event. It is very much a present-day reality. Right now, in 2022, we can perceive clearly that there is still a genocidal project targeting Indigenous people that is being carried out through the channels of colonial and imperial power (e.g. the branches and agencies of the US government) on behalf of a white supremacist, fundamentally anti-Indigenous, settler-colonial society.
Will you sit with me in the discomfort of perceiving these hard and terrible truths? Even if you aren’t racialized as white? But especially, if – like me – you are?
In the spirit of ever deepening our conscious engagement with our current reality as it is currently constructed, I invite you to join me in consciously considering the systemic processes and material conditions by which this society creates the illusion that Indigenous people mostly no longer exist, as a way to obscure the reality that Indigenous people are still being genocidally targeted, right now, in 2022.
Indigenous people are NOT extinct – Indigenous people live everywhere in the US – and yet they are treated, in our public discourse and in popular presentations, as if they don’t really any longer exist, except in the white imagination of the “Indian”. The white imaginary of the “Indian” is certainly, disturbingly, vivid in its warped, racist depictions of Indigenous people and cultures: for example, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington R*d Sk*ns, the Atlanta Braves and their so-called “tomahawk chop”, etc., etc.
And how might we consciously consider Thanksgiving Day, which is just around the corner?
Now, I want to be clear: holidays of gratitude can be beautiful expressions in recognition of a truly beautiful and powerful Truth – the natural state of interdependency of all who are and all that is, and a natural abundance available for all, through the natural state of universal interdependency. This is what so many harvest festivals ultimately point to. Holidays of gratitude can be cultural expressions of celebration for the abundance that is always accessible (no matter the material conditions) when we align our practices with the natural truth of interdependence. (To illustrate this point vividly, consider the deeper meaning of mutual aid as a practice of interdependency in this remarkable story: https://www.choctawnation.com/Irish)
But, for white people (people racialized as white), this is not what the US federal holiday of Thanksgiving Day is actually intended to be about. It isn’t truthfully about gratitude or the practice of mutual aid, because the stories that have become the narrative core of this particular holiday – the stories that make it seem like this federal holiday has always been about sharing and gratitude – are not even true! They are distortions or outright lies.
Over time, these lies and distortions have become powerful and enticing myths that provide cover for what is actually, in practice, an annual celebration of white people’s gaining and hoarding an (over-)abundance (of all the things) through state enforcement, violence, and mass death. The hard truth is that this society was founded upon the very notion – a promise, really – that the rightful owners of everything are the white patriarchs who will fulfill their Manifest Destiny within white families that will flourish on the lands they now occupy in the material (over-)abundance granted to them as their right, enforced by the power of the settler-colonial State.
For people who are not white – for people for whom this society was not originally intended – the federal holiday of Thanksgiving Day has many different meanings. Right now, my reflections on Thanksgiving Day are for those of us racialized as white. As white people, we must consider the place of this federal holiday in its relation to the socio-political meaning and operation of whiteness in a white supremacist settler colonial/imperial state. When we gather as white people in white families, surrounded, as many of us are, by some level of intergenerational wealth (which white families enjoy to a far, far greater level than Indigenous and Black families in the US), and we gather around a table to mark Thanksgiving Day and proclaim gratitude for the abundance we experience, what are we actually grateful for? If we aren’t engaging critically with the mythology of this federal holiday, it becomes easy for us to continue to indulge a lie that hides a terrible truth that is actually plainly visible: the abundance of material resources and opportunities that we claim we don’t take for granted have come to us by way of so much terror and terrorism, so much stealing, so much displacement, so much stolen labor, so much stolen land, so many stolen lives.
White people – my people – we need to confront the terrible truth that our abundance is ill-gotten gains. It is blood money, and it is on us to say, we will no longer accept the dividends (the bribes and payoffs) of a fundamentally violent and genocidal system. What profit is it to us, to gain the whole world, and lose our soul?
In the spirit of truth-telling and justice-seeking, I invite you to join me in sitting with this hard truth, in these days leading into Thanksgiving Day 2022. This truth is certainly not pleasant. And -speaking personally: yes, holding this hard truth has made it impossible for me to enjoy or partake in Thanksgiving Day in the way it is currently observed and celebrated. But harmful myths are harmful myths no matter how enticing are the rewards for participating in the mythology. There are so many other ways and so many other days that I can practice and celebrate gratitude, interdependency, and the natural state of abundance. But, for me, the fourth Thursday of November can no longer be that day.
If you are so moved, you can join me in practices of intentional and reparative re-distribution of resources by monetarily supporting local or national Indigenous organizations, such as Indigenous Women Rising and Changing Woman Initiative, two organizations whose moral vision and leadership have inspired and shaped our work in the AMSA Reproductive Health Project. IWR operates an abortion fund and midwifery fund, and CWI operates a traditional birth and wellness center for Indigenous birthing people.