As the American Thanksgiving holiday approaches, our minds wander to
idyllic images of Pilgrims and Indians peacefully sharing a feast in
celebration of the fall harvest. This November 24, as we break bread with our
families and friends, let us take some time to reflect on the fate of Native
Americans in the centuries that followed the first Thanksgiving.
This nation was founded on principles of inalienable human rights and
civil liberties. It would appear, however, that initially those guarantees
applied only to those fortunate enough to have been born white
European-Americans. As African-Americans remained enslaved in this country's
early years, Native Americans didn't have it much better, enduring centuries of
cultural, political, and economic repression, forced relocation, confinement to
reservations, massacres by federal troops, and broken treaties.
As European-American settlers pushed westward in the late 18th century
and through the 19th century, land theft of a massive scale ensued. In 1830,
the 23rd Congress of the United States passed the "Indian Removal
Act," legitimizing the land greed of the white settlers and resulting in
the death or displacement of countless Native Americans. This legislation was
signed into law by none other than all-American action hero President Andrew
Jackson himself. (Think of that when you pull out your 20-dollar bill to pay
for your Thanksgiving turkey.)
Fast forward to the 20th century to find that things hadn't gotten much
better. Beginning with President Ulysses Grant's 1869 "Peace Policy"
and continuing well into the 20th century, more than 100,000 Native Americans
were forced by the U.S. government to attend Christian boarding schools that
tried to school, and sometimes beat, the Indian out of them. These children
were separated from their families for most of the year and forcibly stripped
of their language, culture, and customs in an effort to "kill the Indian
and save the man." Virtually imprisoned in the schools, the children
experienced a devastating litany of abuses, from forced assimilation and
grueling labor to widespread sexual and physical abuse. School officials
routinely forced children to do arduous work to raise money for staff salaries,
and "leased out" students during the summers to farm or work as
domestics for white families. In addition to bringing in income, the hard labor
prepared the children to take their place in white society -- the only one open
to them -- on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
Those who remained on the reservations faced their own set of
challenges. This form of apartheid separated Native Americans physically,
socially, and economically from the world outside the reservation.
Traditionally nomadic hunter societies were forced to learn to farm for their
subsistence. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, the Native American population
came to face the highest rates of poverty, suicide, alcoholism, high school
drop-out, and teen pregnancy amongst ethnic groups in the U.S. -- a trend that
continues to this day.
This Thanksgiving, please take a moment to reflect on the fact that
Native American history comprises so much more than just some stereotype
caricature sidekicks to macho cowboy movie heroes. They are human beings, and
they were here first.
Mary Shaw is a
Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She currently serves as Philadelphia
Area Coordinator for Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human
rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and
in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Note that the ideas expressed in this
article are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
Amnesty or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.