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The only time Native Americans are acknowledged is during Thanksgiving. An American tradition and holiday which is loaded with a mythologised relationship between the “savage” Native Americans, and the first waves of white European settlers to the country. However, this public holiday is wrapped up in a history of ethnic cleansing and rampant genocide, and the ongoing oppression towards Native Americans often goes unnoticed.
Thanksgiving is tainted by the deception of white European settlers “discovering” a country and having grand feasts with the native people. Historically there was one feast between the first permanent European settlers (1621), which is acknowledged today as the first Thanksgiving celebration in the colonies. However, this single event has eclipsed the following centuries of mass murder, rape and land grabbing by the white Europeans towards the indigenous people of America, who were in the way of Europe’s global expansion into America.
Although an exact number cannot be placed on the number of native people killed during these rampant genocides, the death toll has been estimated by the scholar D.E.Stannard to have been as high as 100 million. In his novel American Holocaust Stannard comments that “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world”. Today there are as little as 5.2 million people who identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native in the United states, many of whom have been marginalised in the country’s reservations that make up just 2.3 percent of the total land mass of the country.
This denial of the complexities of American history, is perhaps why racial slurs and caricatures towards Native Americans are still so embedded within contemporary American culture. At a time when their black American players have been kneeling in protest against police brutality, it could be assumed that the owners of the National Football League would have become more enlightened by racial issues. However, this past Thanksgiving the Washington based football team, the Redskins, of whom even Obama has called out for its racially charged title, insensitively hosted their first ever home match on Thanksgiving: a holiday which their name is intrisically linked with.
“This denial of the complexities of American history, is perhaps why racial slurs and caricatures towards Native Americans are still so embedded within contemporary American culture”
The connotations of the word “redskin” have a raw history within the Native American community, with the term originating from the institutionalised genocide of their ancestors. In 1755, the Phips proclamation of the Massachusetts government actively encouraged the murder of natives, through a sliding scale of bounties placed on the murder and then presentation of the scalps of Native Americans. These bloody scalps became referred to as “redskins”. It is as though the owner of the Redskins Daniel Snyder is seeking to reinforce the power of whiteness by disregarding the issues of Thanksgiving and instead using it to promote his team’s derogatory name. The ubiquity of watching the NFL after eating your Thanksgiving meal, which has its British equivalent in watching the football on Boxing day, enables the Redskins match to indirectly normalise and communicate racially charged dialogue towards the already marginalised Native American community.
In recent years, the most prominent sense of the repression of the Native American people was evident last year in struggle with the North Dakota Access pipeline. In what was the largest and most widely reported Native American protest in over four decades. The peaceful protest of members of the Sioux tribe last Thanksgiving were teargassed by North Dakota law enforcement, which resulted in a ten hour clash and left 300 protesters injured.
The apprehension of the Sioux tribe towards the pipeline was due to its encroachment on land that the U.S had agreed to protect as an Sioux reservation in an 1851 treaty, and their fears that the pipes route could potentially contaminate their water supply. Concerns which can be justified with recent news that a pipeline by the same company Trans Canada in South Dakota, has spilt an estimated 210,000 gallons. As it was revealed later on this year, the peaceful protesters of Standing Rock were infiltrated by an international private security company who monitored activists and waged an anti-protest messaging campaign via social media.This reveals not only the heaviness of law enforcement agencies towards Native Americans, but also the insolence of the federal government, who allowed private interests to infiltrate treaty-protected lands.
“There is no engagement with Native American heritage and culture outside of Pocahontas and Thanksgiving slurs”
November is supposedly Native American month; the day after Thanksgiving is recognised federally as Native American Heritage day. The day should be a time in which the country can educate and reflect on the sacrifices and contributions the Native American people have made for the infrastructure of American society. However, it is overshadowed by the Black Friday pandemic of gluttony and excessive materialistic capitalism, which is the paradox of Native American values and beliefs.
Writer and activist from Oglala Lakota Nation, Simon Moya-Smith commented that “I don’t imagine people are turning around saying, ‘Hey, yeah, I’m gonna get this big-screen TV, this flat-screen TV, and by the way, happy Native American Heritage Day.’” This denial of Native American presence within the wider American consciousness, could perhaps allude to why such forces of police brutality towards indigenous people have been blacked out by the mainstream media. A recent report conducted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, having recently highlighted that in comparison to the indigenous percentage of the U.S. population, Native Americans were more likely than any other ethnic group to be killed by police; 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than white americans are. If there is no engagement with Native American heritage and culture outside of Pocahontas and Thanksgiving slurs, the continued repression of these people is one that remains silenced.
“There is a gulf of contradiction in America when it comes to celebrating history”
There is a gulf of contradiction in America when it comes to celebrating history: the belligerent upholding of Thanksgiving traditions that appease the white consensus, because it’s the “American way”, and the complete disrespect of the Native American equivalent who are just as much apart of America, but are seen as a threat to the status-quo. Viewing Native Americans through the window of distorted celebrations of American national pride is hugely problematic at a time of white nationalist taking to the streets and yearning to “make America great again”. It is through this misrepresentation of history that racial stereotyping can continue to be normalised within the fibres of American democracy and deepen its social divides.