While millions of Americans gather with family and friends in warmly-heated homes to give thanks for their blessings and share feasts of plenty, Native Americans and their allies are suffering brutal, even life-threatening, violence at the hands of police on the bleak, sub-freezing plains of North Dakota.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes, along with allies from across America and around the world, are resisting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on sacred Native land. DAPL threatens the Missouri River, which is not only sacred to indigenous people but is the source of drinking water for millions of Americans, and will contribute to the acceleration of climate change. It also violates Native American treaty rights.
Calling themselves “water protectors,” the #NoDAPL protesters have courageously faced off against National Guard troops as well as state and local law enforcement and private security forces employed by the pipeline’s owner, the Donald Trump-linked Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). ETP guards sparked widespread outrage after images emerged of them unleashing attack dogs on peaceful Native American protesters in September. Video showed blood dripping from the nose and mouth of one of the dogs while water protectors screamed in agony and terror.
It gets worse than that. On Sunday, more than 300 water protectors were injured as police fired rubber-coated steel bullets, chemical agents including tear gas and pepper spray and powerful water cannons at them in sub-freezing temperatures. Dozens of people were hospitalized, some of them suffering from head and limb injuries, eye trauma, internal bleeding, seizures and hypothermia. Sophia Wilansky, a 21-year-old activist from New York, was left in critical condition and had to be airlifted for emergency surgeries in Minneapolis after a police officer allegedly threw a stun grenade at her. The blast from the “less-than-lethal” projectile blew her arm wide open, dislodging and exposing bone, shredding flesh and mangling arteries and connective tissue. Wilansky may lose her arm to amputation.
“Basically, it’s an act of war,” a Yankton Sioux leader said of the brutal repression at Standing Rock. That’s nothing new in Indian Country — the day the dogs were sicced on the water protectors just happened to be the 150th anniversary of the Whitestone massacre, which occurred just miles from Standing Rock and in which hundreds of Sioux, including many women and children, were slaughtered in what one participant called “a perfect massacre.”
It’s not just Standing Rock. Across America, Native Americans are fightingthe encroachment on their lands, resources and sacred heritage by rapacious corporations and the governments they control. They’re also still fighting for voting equality, as regressive forces attempt to employ similar voter suppression tactics that have been so successful at disenfranchising blacks. Speaking of blacks, while many Americans are rightfully outraged by police shootings of unarmed African Americans, Native Americans are actually the ethnic group most likely to be killed by police, a manifestation of the white racism and apathy toward the endemic poverty, substance abuse and general hopelessness that still pervades too much of Indian Country today.
The perverse patriotism of Thanksgiving mythology omits horrific details — that the English had already been enslaving area natives for years, that the handful of surviving Wampanoag Indians who sought the protection of English settlers during that fateful winter of 1621 had been all but wiped out by a smallpox epidemic likely started or stoked by the heinous practice of distributing smallpox-infected blankets to indigenous populations, or that the pious Pilgrims (who were nonetheless prone to “drunkenness, uncleanliness and rampant sodomy,” according to their governor, William Bradford) thanked their white “god” for smiting the savages with smallpox. American school children don’t learn any of this, nor are they taught how, just months after that first — and only — integrated Thanksgiving, Myles Standish led a massacre of Massachusett Indians at Wessagusset, the vanquished warrior Wituwamat’s head displayed on a pike at Plymouth.
After the “taming” of Massachusetts, Connecticut was next. Pequot men, women and children were slaughtered with reckless abandon — this time many were burned alive — as the invaders gave thanks to their “god” for his favor. Again, William Bradford:
Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire… horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.
“This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots,” John Winthrop, Bradford’s successor, proudly proclaimed in the wake of what would become known as the Mystic massacre.
Many white Americans today point to past genocidal violence (although they rarely use the “G-word”) against Native Americans to illustrate just how different, and better, things are today. They point to Indian casinos and government “handouts” as proof that justice has been served and that Indians should “get over it.” But from Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock, violent repression of indigenous peoples has never ended, as the images from North Dakota affirm. The United States has yet to properly apologize or compensate for a genocide that killed tens of millions of people and reduced once-flourishing cultures spanning the entire continent to a relative handful of survivors strewn sparsely throughout the land, largely confined to the howling wastelands of the reservation. It’s extremely difficult to “get over it” when the descendants of the perpetrators of one of the great mass killings in human history are loth to admit that “it” even happened.
So as you prepare to give thanks for all your blessings and tuck into that turkey and pumpkin pie (neither of which was served at that first Thanksgiving), please take a moment to at least acknowledge that the cornucopia of plenty that invader-descended Americans take for granted today is largely the result of the genocidal conquest of the original Americans, and that the victims of that genocide are still being subjected to horrific violence by white invaders even as you’re reading this.