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
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.