You Cannot Give Thanks for What Is Stolen

I take a pen from the corner of my desk and write the word “Thanksgiving” on the back of an envelope. Thanksgiving. I hyphenate it, place the word in quotation marks, rearrange it: Giving Thanks. Thanks-Giving. I grab the pen tighter. My knuckle burns as I strike the word giving, and write taking in my best cursive, the way they taught me in grade school. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

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What can Thanksgiving mean for Indigenous people, except to serve as a reminder of all that has been taken? Land. Children. Language. Story. What turns this taking into giving, which is to say, what can thanks possibly have to do with what has only ever been stolen? 

Perhaps the shift from “taking” to “giving” has happened with such insistence in the American psyche so as to have accrued that warm feeling of common sense. Is it not common sense to say that Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday? 

Lenape scholar Joanne Barker writes the following about the so-called first Thanksgiving of 1637: 

John Winthrop, governor of an English colony in what is now Massachusetts, held a feast in honor of a volunteer militia who had returned from their massacre of 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Nation. The federal holiday was established in 1863. By then, the mythic narrative had become the national truth: Pilgrims (Americans) gave thanks for surviving, thanks to the “Indians” who fed them and taught them how to grow corn. 

The massacre of 700 Pequot Indians is almost never mentioned in American history, let alone at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Why is this? 

Let me hazard a theory: Without the Pequot massacre there would be no United States. This foundational violence is required for US national identity to coalesce into what it is today. Not to coalesce around the remembrance of that genocide, but rather, its oblivion. The United States needs to forget. Such forgetting is integral to the American psyche. And in this sense, the genocide of Indigenous peoples is a fact that must be forgotten. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

When compared to other foundational myths, the Pequot Massacre is a more accurate “event” to describe the origins of the United States. More accurate than Christopher Columbus’s “discovery,” or the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, because the Pequot massacre reveals the violence of settler colonialism. It does not convey a sense of peaceful exchange, but the brutal reality of genocide. The Pequot massacre serves as an example of settler colonialism because of the national disavowal of that violence.

Settler colonialism is about defining boundaries, demarcating what is part of the civilized world, and what is wild, what exists beyond the limits of civilization. It is about turning land into property.  

This, too, forms part of the visual repertoire of US identity formation. Take, for example, this lithograph that depicts the Pequot Massacre. 

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“Mystic Massacre in New England” (1638). A description text reads: “Facsimile made by Edward Bierstadt, from the original in the library of the New York Historical Society, of the Map in ‘Newes from America,’ an account of the Pequot War, by Captain John Underhill, published in London in 1638. The Fort was referred to as ‘Seabrooke Fort’ and ‘Lyes upon a River called Conetticut at the mouth of it,’ and ‘the destroying’ occurred May 19, 1637.” (via Wikimedia Commons)

This image offers a glimpse into how the massacre was understood in the 17th century. There is an insistent rhythm in this work. In formal terms, the patterned hills provide a framing device that is contrasted by the concentric circles that dominate the image. Iterative Indians. Iterative Colonizers. Rows of houses and the sharp points of timber lashed together into a palisade. You have to turn to grasp the scope of this image and to read the indications of where each colonial officer was positioned. This is a map of how the colonist burned the Pequot, evidence of that genocide. 

We focus on the center of the image — a spiral of violence, a conflagration. This perspective, the eye of God, is also that of a military man — Underhill led the assault — who aims to focus not on the terrain, not the land, but the act of enclosing, circling, killing. The image presents the entirety of the scene — but sanitized of the blood and charred remains that would have littered the actual site of the massacre. The image serves as a tool in imagining the conquest of the Pequot as a disembodied enterprise. We know they are “vanquished” but we are spared the gore. 

Because the United States is a settler colonial nation, its primary function is to eliminate Indigenous people from the land so that it can occupy, develop, and “own” the land thus transformed into property. The erasure of Indigenous people from the land is constitutive of the United States as both a concept and a physical, material territory. There can only be a United States because of the erasure of Indigenous people, for without our land there would be no place for this country to exist. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

But we have not disappeared. Hello. Hi. We are not all gone, relegated to history, to that antecedent moment that must be overcome for the United States to occupy the land it has stolen and fulfill its Manifest Destiny. 

It is in this sense that the Pequot massacre comes to haunt the American imagination. A nation should not be built on genocide. So, the myth of the first Thanksgiving harnesses two important aspects of American ideology: First, the peaceful coexistence between Indians and colonizers, and second, the exchange of goods in an equitable, mutually beneficial way. The destruction of an entire People becomes the peaceful exchange of goods and knowledge, so that those first Americans, the Pilgrims, could survive — so they could fulfill their divine mandate to occupy this land. 

Thanksgiving serves the psychological disavowal of what all Americans know to be true, and yet, cannot admit: that they benefit, actively, currently, from the genocide of Indigenous people. They know this to be true. They cannot but know it as they live and breathe on this land that is not their land. They know that Indians were killed for them to occupy this place they call America. But they cannot admit this even to themselves. Were they to actually reckon with that violent foundation, they would crack under the weight of it all. And so, rather than deal with this history, they invent a different one based on myths of peaceful coexistence, rather than genocide; equitable exchange, rather than the theft of land and resources. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

Today’s settlers cannot bear the thought of their own complicity in the destruction of Indigenous communities, so they prefer to deflect, disavow. 

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For the Freudians out there, yes, disavowal is a psychoanalytic term that appears in the late work of Sigmund Freud, and was subsequently developed by Jacques Lacan. Freud argued that when a male child sees that a girl does not have a penis, he cannot believe this to be true, and rather than confront that realization continues to believe that all people have a penis. Freud calls this the “castration complex.” Disavowal constitutes a psychological reckoning with what we know to be true, but cannot admit because it would bring forth some sort of trauma. For Lacan, this typically takes place in the realm of desire, and all desire is brought forth by the lack of something. We desire what we do not have. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

In the realm of political theory, disavowal has also been taken up as a way to explain the paradoxical need for settlers to erase Indigenous people through genocide or assimilation while at the same time presenting themselves as free from any “original sin.” Lorenzo Veracini puts this succinctly: “Images of settler democratic citizenship and polity are only made possible by a comprehensive disavowal of the presence and sovereignty of Indigenous groups.” In a similar vein, Kevin Bruyneel argues that “in a settler society, the work of collective memory serves to reaffirm the settler claim to belong to, appropriation of, and authority over lands, on the one hand, and the disavowal of the genocide, dispossession, and alienation of Indigenous peoples, on the other hand.” I’m not alone in arguing this. 

We need look no further than President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation that made Thanksgiving a national holiday to see how this type of settler forgetting operates. 

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.

Lincoln makes no mention of Pilgrims or Indians. Thanksgiving is not to celebrate the Nation’s utopian meeting of two peoples, but to praise the mighty Christian God. Man’s supplications are to be directed to God for peace and harmony. Lincoln wrote this at the end of the Civil War, so this should not come as a surprise. But I want to underscore that this divine “disposition” — the ordaining of God’s will, is specifically related to land. It has already been “disposed,” and the United States is the place, the land, assigned as where “our posterity” will take place “throughout all generations”. The will of God, according to Lincoln, is for this land to serve as the blessed home of the United States in perpetuity. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

The prototype of Thanks-taking is seen in Jennie Brownscombe’s 1925 painting “Thanksgiving at Plymouth.” The work is ahistorical in the details: log cabins were not in use in the early 17th century, the Indians are dressed in Plains buckskin fringe and feathers, and November in Plymouth is much colder than this image would suggest. But historical verisimilitude is not the point. The point is the romantic glow, the sheen of a pastel afternoon, and the focal point of a Pilgrim preacher leading the table in prayer. This is a dream of what White Americans wish had happened. 

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Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, “Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1925), Oil on canvas, 30 x 39 1/8 inches. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. (via Wikimedia Commons)

And then we have James Daugherty, a prolific painter and illustrator. He completed several murals for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and in 1939 he won the John Newberry Award for his rendition of Daniel Boone. This specific example featured at the top of this article is not dated, but it is likely from the 1940s. We see the resemblance to Daugherty’s illustrations for Daniel Boone — in both cases reliant on exaggerated musculature and a kind of effete caveman quality. The figures are caricatures of the American imagination. Caveman Indians on the left and haughty Pilgrims on the right. 

But, then, we see the work of sculptor Paul Manship. I’m not sure if this was a study for a work, or simply a drawing. But it is housed at the Smithsonian Art Museum. Manship was an important American sculptor in the mid-20th century — he’s the one who did the enormous gold Prometheus at Rockefeller Center. 

Paul Manship, “Pilgrims Receiving Gifts of Food from the Indians Symbol and Origin of Our Thanksgiving Way” (date unknown), pencil on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Paul Manship (courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Here we see a restraint of figuration, supported by the symbolic posture of each group. The Pilgrims are receiving the gifts of food — a turkey and a deer, both of which were also present in the previous example. But here we note a kind of Neo-classical treatment: the Indians tall and upright, looking directly at the Pilgrims on the left. It is a sketch, sure, but one that reveals the sedimentation of colonial imagery, the apocryphal “origin” of America; the disavowal of its violence. 

Or we could look at Doris Lee’s rendition of Thanksgiving from 1935. 

Doris Lee, “Thanksgiving” (ca. 1935), taken in 2012 at the Art Institute of Chicago (photo by Esther Westerveld via Flickr)

A controversial work when it was first displayed, the painting participates in the revival of American genre painting that had fallen out of fashion at the turn of the century. And yet, Thanksgiving, as ever, serves as a touchstone for American identity in a way that allows it to represent a place of safety, of tradition, amidst the uncertainty of the Great Depression. The New England location — outdoors, amidst a soft fall light — is here replaced by the bustle of a midwestern kitchen. Lee is attuned to the gendered dynamics of food preparation, and yet, the image of an “American” interior disavows the violence of settlement, displacement, and Indigenous erasure. There are no Indians here because the holiday has no more need for them. 

And finally, Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” which is one of four “Freedoms” he painted in 1943, inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State of the Union address from 1941. 

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom From Want” (1943), illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. From the collection of Norman Rockwell Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Allow me to cite from a recent catalogue description from an exhibition of this work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 

Thankfulness radiates from American artist Norman Rockwell’s iconic holiday scene, Freedom from Want, in which three generations gather around the dining table to partake in a mid-afternoon meal. The gleaming bird, presented by the family matriarch, is the crowning glory of this feast, accompanied by a covered casserole dish, a plate of celery, cranberry sauce, and a bowl of fruit. Despite this appetizing spread, the people seated at the table do not gaze hungrily at the fare before them; instead, they appear to marvel at one another, rejoicing in the love and togetherness that fill the room. As the work’s title implies, there is no want.

There. Is. No. Want. They say, aching with nostalgia at the same time. 

There is no want, they say, knowing that this want is the product of such violence, such forgetting. 

There is no want, and no subject, no person who is doing the wanting. 

I think to myself: I want so much.

I want settlers to return the land they stole.  

I want them to return the bones of my ancestors locked away in museums. 

I want memory. 

I want truth. 

You cannot give thanks for what is stolen. 

I have repeated this phrase seven times, one for each hundred Pequot killed that day. 

I write this now, and I wonder if it is clear. I wonder if the stealing has become less common-sense, less unremarkable. To remark on the un-remarkable is to upset the ordering of the world. It is to say what has been erased, but not forgotten. It is to speak the traces of memory as they burn in our hearts. 

I wonder if the act of remembering the massacre of the Pequot Nation is enough. I wonder if, speaking that history is sufficient to enact the changes I want to see in the world. Of course not. But perhaps by speaking this history to life, calling out to those ancestors, we can begin to admit to that which has been for so long ignored. 

This text was originally presented as a lecture at Time & Space (TSL) in Hudson, New York, as part of Indigenous Dialogues, a series curated by Heather Bruegl (Oneida/Stockbridge-Munsee). 

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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