Narratives create, mold, and give life to our experiences of the world. They give us power, fear, comfort, and a sense of community. Some narratives are silly in their absurdity, like that possessing a vagina would inherently make you want to stay in the kitchen all day. We laugh at that narrative, but sometimes we look up from the dinner table and realize that it’s still gotten the best of us. Some narratives are silly in their absurdity, but we feel them deeply and allow them to control our actions: the United States is a bastion for democracy in the world, people of any color can succeed if they just work a little harder, women’s bodies are safe in our post-feminist world. These narratives may be laughable, but their impacts on the world are far from funny.
To be clear, I’m not saying that narrative = not true. I promote a narrative of US history that is characterized by the rich exploiting poor and working class people, frequently using race as an effective tool of division. This is obviously different from the Tea Party narrative that the American Dream has been destroyed by handouts and government intervention. They are both narratives, but I’m pretty confident that I have more facts on my side. However, when power comes into the equation, facts sometimes fall by the wayside.
One example of a powerful narrative that defies facts is the history of Thanksgiving. When I was in elementary school every November we faithfully made little pilgrim and “Indian” hats out of construction paper. Donned in our scratchy symbols of peaceful multiculturalism we’d listen to a lovely story of cooperation, resilience, and friendship. Leaving school we’d be inundated with the obligatory marketing rain of black buckle shoes, colorful fall leaves, and ambiguous floating feathers.
It wasn’t until quite recently that I learned the true history of Thanksgiving. In 1621, the year often cited as the “first” Thanksgiving, the Puritan pilgrims of the north east did have a feast and shooting party, but it was not a thanksgiving. And there certainly weren’t any indigenous folks present because most of them had died from disease or been enslaved after the invasion of English explorers seven years before. On November 29, 1623 Governor Bradford proclaimed a “Day of Thanksgiving” because fall rains had arrived and saved the pilgrims’ harvest. Bradford’s celebration has often been confused with the 1621 shooting party (1). One similarity: no indigenous folks were present at either event.
As the Puritans and other British colonizers pushed west in search of more land, they murdered and enslaved the Native Americans they encountered. Under pressure from the colonizers the Pequot Nation refused to sign a peace treaty, and further refused to hand over a group of indigenous people who had killed two white slave raiders. The ensuing Pequot War was the bloodiest of the anti-colonial wars in the north east. When indigenous folks were captured they were sold into the new and lucrative slave trade that sent daily slave ships from New England to “the West Indies, the Azures, Spain, Algiers and England.” (1)
In 1641 the Dutch governor of Manhattan began paying colonizers for the scalps of murdered Native Americans, and the Puritans implemented a bounty for “Natives fit-to-be-sold for slavery.” The violence continued to grow: "The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate Natives from New England. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a “Day of Thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the “heathen savages.” This was the second Day of Thanksgiving that was officially celebrated. It was marked by the hacking off of Native heads and kicking them through the streets of nearby Manhattan." (1)
The killing raids continued as the colonies grew. For every successful massacre, they began to hold a day of Thanksgiving. George Washington gave an order to the celebrations in 1789 when he declared November 26 a national day of thanksgiving (1). Eventually Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, around the same time that he ordered 38 Dakota men to be hung in Mankato, MN, the largest mass execution in US history. (2)
The narrative of Thanksgiving as a moment of multiculturalism and friendship is insidious because it invisibilizes the true history – the facts – of genocide and slavery. This is a serious act of disrespect to the victims of these atrocities, and it is a dangerous threat to their descendants, who are still suffering from and fighting against the modern colonial project.
Despite lying and cheating its way through treaties that pushed indigenous peoples to tiny tracts of land, the United States continues to violate the sovereignty of Native nations, generally through taking natural resources like gold, wood, water, and more. Many of you have likely heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which violates the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty by crossing land that belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. (3) Another pipeline is currently trying to snake its way across indigenous land. Line 3, a proposed Enbridge pipeline in northern Minnesota, would violate treaties from 1854 and 1855 that guarantee hunting, fishing, wild rice, and cultural rights for the Ojibwe people. (4)
In Guatemala (and around the world) the conditions are different than in the US, but the colonial projects are the same. At the accompaniment project where I work we have four teams that each accompany multiple cases, and nearly all of them have to do with corporations violating the rights and land of indigenous peoples. One example of many is Tahoe Resource’s El Escobal silver mine, which the local indigenous Xinca people have been resisting for seven years. From their peaceful encampment in front of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court in Guatemala City, the Xinca People’s Parliament recently released a statement reaffirming that they will continue protesting until the Court comes to a decision that would permanently close the mine and recognize their right to defend their land. (5)
Of course, the powerful of the world have every interest in teaching school children that colonialism was an unfortunate mistake of the past. Narratives of “development,” “progress,” and, yes, Thanksgiving friendship, push the colonial project forward by making its invasions invisible, normal, and even desirable. It helps when those of us who have never been colonized benefit financially from the whole arrangement; weapons manufacturers make money off of the militarized police force that attacked water defenders at Standing Rock; a couple engineers from Minneapolis get well paying jobs to construct Line 3; Tahoe Resources blesses Reno, Nevada by opening its US office there. The majority of US-Americans have an abundance of reasons to choose the development narrative over that of colonialism. But those reasons don’t change the facts, and one of those narratives definitely has more facts on its side.
On my second accompaniment trip I had the honor of sitting in on an informational presentation by the Asociación para la Justicia y Reconciliación (Association for Justice and Reconciliation, AJR). The AJR works towards justice for the genocide committed by military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his head of intelligence, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. Legally they are working on the court cases against these two men, and communally they are fighting for historical memory among surviving communities.
On the chilly November day when I accompanied them in the northern Ixil region, the AJR was educating Mayan students from the Ixil University about their work and the fight for justice. To my surprise, a significant part of the presentation was the history of the genocide: the history of the students’ parents and grandparents. After a couple hours of these historical lessons, I felt a little surprised that they were taking so much time just to explain events that the students’ families had experienced so personally. It almost seemed patronizing to present the information as if the students didn’t already know it. After all, they had to know it, right?
Soon after I started to feel confused – and a little annoyed – the presentation ended and a young woman stood up to ask a question. She was wearing the traditional clothes of Ixil women: a thick red skirt with yellow designs, a richly decorated belt, and a huipil (blouse) with embroidery around the neck line. There’s almost no question that this woman lost family members in the internal armed conflict. “Thank you so much for sharing this history with us,” she said, to my shock. She continued, “We aren’t taught this in our schools. Nobody from the educational system is honest with us about what happened during the violence. They want us to think that it didn’t happen, or that it was just caused by the guerrillas.”
Hearing that young women speak as we all shivered through the highland wind was one of the most impactful moments of my life. I didn’t know just how powerful the government’s promotion of their narrative had been. I didn’t know that the post-conflict bleaching of history had been so successful. I didn’t know. Or perhaps I should say that I knew; I knew the Ixil peoples’ story while they were denied it.
If I have ever doubted the importance of historical memory and the power of education, this experience confirmed them. And it’s not just about the importance of grassroots education, although that’s certainly a crucial part of any movement. It’s also about the responsibility of those of us who have the privilege of access to information; those of us who know that our silver comes from a mine that violates the rights of the Xinca people, who know that accepting Enbridge into Duluth is an act of violence against our Ojibwe neighbors, who know that Thanksgiving is the celebration of 17th and 18th century massacres.
Personally, I have a lot of work left to reconcile these facts with the lifetime of narratives that have shaped my being. When my family called me from their Thanksgiving reunion I wept that I couldn’t be with them. My longing for family and tradition wasn’t lessened by that fact that I am definitely learning more about the anti-colonial struggle while accompanying Q’eqchi’ water defenders here in Guatemala. However, while we make our way through these real and complicated processes of un- and re-learning, the clock is still ticking and the snakes of colonialism are still slithering their way forward. We all need to process and heal, but mostly we need to act.
I offer you these actions of solidarity from a place of commitment to continuing my own education, rage mixed with love mixed with rage, and – of course – thanks.
1. Matthew Hughey, “On Thanksgiving: Why Myths Matter,” Racism Review, November 24, 2009, http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2009/11/24/on-thanksgiving-why-myths-matter/.
2. Jon Wiener, “Largest Mass Execution in US History,” The Nation, December 26, 2012, https://www.thenation.com/article/largest-mass-execution-us-history-150-years-ago-today/.
3. Jeffrey Ostler and Nick Estes, ‘“The Supreme Law of the Land’: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Indian Country Today, January 16, 2017, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/opinions/supreme-law-land-standing-rock-dakota-access-pipeline/.
4. “What is Line 3?,” Stop Line 3, https://www.stopline3.org/about/#destructive-new-corridor.
5. “Peaceful Resistance movement & Xinca Parliament call for the permanent closure of the Escobal mine,” Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, November 2017, https://nisgua.org/16667-2/.
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"More than 98% of the people say no to chemical mining of metals. Welcome to peoples in peaceful resistance." Photo from San Juan Bosco, Guatemala.
PC: Sandra Cuffe, Mongabay
Communications Fellow with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Intersectional feminist, aspiring farmer, and plátano enthusiast.