krys méndez ramírez

Thanksgiving and the Native American Holocaust

In Decolonization, Educational Justice, Geography/ Spatial Justice, History, Identity Politics, Racial Politics, The Revolution on November 20, 2012 at 4:00 AM

I recently started reading a revolutionary classic that revamped the world’s popular understanding of U.S. history: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Published in 1980, the book  was meant to tell the story of the United States from the perspective of the disenfranchised, from the people whose blood and toil created the governments, institutions, and physical structures that we often equate with “progress.” I wonder why it took me so long to start this book, but I was drawn to it recently because of our impending holiday.

Given my recent life experiences, I am all for an explicit expression of gratitude. But I am of the opinion that giving “thanks” should be a quotidian practice, something that is interwoven into our daily habits the way brushing our teeth and saying “good morning” to our neighbors and co-workers have become innocuously habituated. With respect to the importance of “giving thanks,” I am completed supportive of it… but one must ask why a special day is needed for this practice. In a world of violent material inequalities and war-related savagery (consider the U.S.-supported air strikes against non-militants in Gaza and Afghanistan), doesn’t the necessity of a day of giving thanks not reek of First World cultural elitism and token appreciation? How would the majority of our planet’s residents feel about the excessive cultural commodification imbued in this country’s “holiday,” with its short-term gathering of air-mile-flying passive aggressive family members who then disperse to continue their mindless practices of material consumption (for instance, consider the meaning of Black Friday)?

Chief Seattle

A statue of Chief Seattle, an indigenous leader for whom the largest Northwestern city is named.

This, however, is only a minor aside to the more egregious point: the failure of (North) Americans to recognize how our presence in this land was founded upon the displacement and genocide of millions of First Nation (Native American) peoples. As Zinn writes in his book, the purpose of raising awareness about the Native American Holocaust is not to simply accuse, judge, and condemn the incredible misery and bloodshed perpetrated by European colonizers. Understanding our true history is about making sense of how we got here, living in a globe of vast inequalities, and how many of us blindly benefit  from a legacy of genocide and destruction.  As one writer puts it, “celebrating Thanksgiving is as if Germany had a day of celebration for the Holocaust. Thanksgiving is the American Holocaust.”

The “quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” is a practice that must end–but not simply for the purpose of extracting a history lesson that we can then use to claim we’ve “come far.” Such a dismissive disposition towards the atrocities committed on American land simply fail to understand the workings of legacy and the continual violence perpetrated against First Nations today. Rather than showcasing a worthless “overemphasis” on the past, rejecting the “quiet acceptance” of genocide is a practice in mindfulness: that is, using our awareness to understand how the pain of our past perpetuates through the sufferings of today. Though it may seem like a mere exercise in understanding social history, it also about recognizing our true humanity–to recognize our abilities to hate and murder but also to transcend these evils to create peace, love, and harmony. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that people give up Thanksgiving as a hopelessly evil, imperialist project. Instead, we can reinvent Thanksgiving as a time for transformative healing, a time to spread mindfulness and genuine gratitude in a manner that does not contribute to the continual silencing of “shameful” histories.

At the end of the day, we are all agents capable of transforming the world. If we take understanding our history seriously (as we should), it can become a brutal process that requires the courage to accept our faults and misunderstandings. It can be difficult to accept how our privileges are based on the brutal oppression of others (past or present). However, this process is one we must all collectively share, for decolonizing our hearts and minds is not simply about our egos. It is about creating the world of loving kindness we all need.

The American Holocaust of Native Americans

For a concise 101 introduction to the genocide of Native people, you can see this 30 minute documentary with tell-tale interviews.

The Story of Leonard Peltier, a Native American (AIM) activist

I highly recommend learning–and educating students about–this Native activist and current political prisoner. Peltier is a Lakota who was highly active with the anti-colonial, anti-imperial resistance of the American Indian Movement (AIM). As with many revolutionary groups active in the late 1960s/early ’70s, AIM made crucial connections with Black Panthers and other groups fighting for liberation. Unfortunately, as with others persecuted by the FBI’s COINTEL program, Peltier was scapegoated and imprisoned on charges of murder for which he is still (after nearly 40 years) imprisoned.

Cartographies of an Ongoing Colonization

**For an interactive map that showcases how Native land was stolen over the centuries, see: A Map of Destruction **


A map of First Nation reservations, from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Parks Service. Contrary to the views of dominant amerikkan society, First Nations still hold sovereignty over many lands, albeit considerably (and tragically) less than what they’re entitled to. And contrary to public opinion, indigenous Americans are still persecuted by the government today.


Colonization is characterized by the stealing of land from a sovereign nation. Can you see what is left of indigenous-owned lands in the heart of empire (continental united states)? And can you see what lands remain to indigenous Palestinians?


Rendered cartography of pre-columbian First Nation / Native American civilizations

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