Yesterday, after hours spent preparing our Thanksgiving meal, my family took a moment to bow our heads in prayer. With my in-law visiting this week, I was thankful just for the peaceful week we had experienced so far. Sometimes they’re the in-laws and sometimes they’re the out-laws, if you know what I mean! But I didn’t mention that in my prayer as we sat together around the table.
What I did thank God for was all the good things he has literally showered upon us in this past year. He has shown both grace and his mercy, even in the midst of some severe challenges for my family and for our nation.
God has been so very good to this greatest nation on Earth; the United States of America. God has uniquely blessed us here in this place, and to Him goes all the glory. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks to God, not to men. Personally, I think the celebration of Thanksgiving is not only a right, but a duty. To set aside one day to give thanks to God for our national blessings is the least we can do. Unfortunately, not all agree with me on this.
Yesterday I read a sad, hate-filled screed posted to Alternet called No Thanks for Thanksgiving. Rather than sitting and enjoying a meal with family and giving thanks for all our blessings, he suggests we change this holiday to a day of atonement and fasting for “criminal brutality on a grand scale,” our “genocide of indigenous people,” and “historical hypocrisy.” The author of this column, University of Austin professor Robert Jensen, claims that some of our most revered historical figures have “certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis.”
Some might call Professor Jensen an America-hater, or say he’s unpatriotic. I see him as silly and naive; a man who cannot be taken seriously. Here is a man charged with teaching our children, and yet he ignores history to paint his fantasy of an evil, genocidal, European civilization.
Have we made mistakes in this country? Of course. Have there been tragedies and crimes committed against indigenous peoples? Definitely. And we all know that this was the first nation to declare that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Yet, after having made this declaration, and then fighting a bitter war for freedom, the institution of slavery remained for another 100 years, and institutionalized racism for another 70 years after that! Women would not be allowed to vote for another 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was written! All of these things, and more, honest people understand, admit, and learn of in school.
But Jensen’s claims of Nazism and genocide have no basis in fact. As well, the idea that Europeans “invaded” this continent is thoughtless and unworthy of an academic.
When the North American continent was discovered, it was vast, empty, and fertile. Even today, in the early 21st century, with well over 300 million people living in the US proper, there are huge swaths of this continent which are mostly uninhabited.
Secondly, settlers who came to America did not come here to conquer, but to live. Some were escaping oppression, some seeking opportunity, some in the spirit of adventure.
Unlike what most believe, the Pilgrims of Plymouth did not come to America seeking religious freedom. They had religious freedom already in Holland where they had emigrated. Rather, they came here seeking to set up a community of faith away from the corruption they were encountering in Europe. Their goal was to set up a religious utopia of sorts.
Their early relations with the indigenous tribes were cordial and, while it is true there were conflicts many years later, there was never an attempted genocide of Native Americans on their part or the part of any other settlement. There were many conflicts arising from cultural differences for sure, but Native American tribes had been warring with each for centuries before Europeans arrived. If Europeans had never arrived, those wars would have continued.
These were not defenseless people. The opposite was true. Many tribes were large with fierce warrior traditions. The native style of tracking and fighting was so effective that settlers adopted their techniques.
Native Americans were rightly feared for their fighting skills and their weaponry. The bows and arrows with which they were famous, were just as deadly and far more versatile than the European flintlocks and carbines, which were powerful, but took time to reload and were far heavier. As a matter of fact, it was not until the development of the Winchester repeating rifle in the late 1860s that we finally had a weapon clearly superior to the ones wielded so skillfully by Native Americans.
Unfortunately for Native Americans, they were at least a thousand years behind their European counterparts technologically. These were largely stone-aged cultures and had yet to invent even something as simple as the wheel. Many of these tribes were hunter-gatherer societies with oral traditions. Some were agrarian with the cultivation of numerous staples. But the technological advantage European enjoyed, and their high degree of cultural unity (fostered through a Christian worldview), allowed them to grow faster than surrounding native tribes.
In many cases, local tribes became more integrated with the settler communities and were eventually assimilated. Jensen’s claim that most Native Americans in North America were murdered en masse has no basis in fact whatsoever. Native Americans were too powerful for too long and many tribes survive to this day, located throughout the US, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii, as even Jensen acknowledges. And US policies, from the earliest days of the Republic to today, was oriented towards assimilation, not genocide.
The word “genocide” implies a deliberate and complete extermination of one group or population by another. There was never such a thing in this country, and any attempt to make this claim is, at best, deceptive. It can only be made by those who do not know enough of American history to understand the political and cultural tensions that existed between settlers and natives. Those tensions at times led to violent conflict, it’s true, and there were massacres on both sides.
But Jensen seems to think US policies aimed at “civilizing” and “assimilating” native tribes were genocidal in intent. The intent was not to murder Native Americans, nor even to destroy their culture. The policies, as misguided as some were, sought to bring those disparate tribes into the modern era and deliver some of the benefits of citizenship.
Perhaps Jensen should follow the advice often equated to Native Americans in this country and “walk a mile” in the shoes of those settlers who came here to do just as the natives were already doing, live in freedom. The cultural clashes which occurred between Europeans and Americans were much the same as those between Europeans and Europeans, Americans and Americans. That is to say, they were the same kinds of incidents as have always occurred among humans.
What I do know is this; Native American culture is now and forever indelibly part of our own. Right from that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, the two cultures began to blend.
We changed them, yes; but they changed us as well. Neither has ever, or will ever, be the same.