Above Photo: Wapahkesis / culturalsurvival.org.
The Thanksgiving holiday is an opportunity to remember how the settler colonial state began its genocide against both indigenous people and enslaved Africans.
Yet again a holiday for mass delusion about “Pilgrims and Indians” looms. It is a day when practically nobody seated around tables piled high with big dead birds and assorted platters of carbohydrates gives even a passing thought to Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop’s 1637 journal entry calling for “…a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots.” Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford provided a detailed account of the so-called victories over an estimated 700 members of an indigenous community:
“Those that scraped the fire were [slain] with the sword; some hewed to [pieces], others [run] [through] with their rapiers, so as they were quickly [dispatched], and very few [escaped]…It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the [fire], and the streams of blood quenching the same, and 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].”
Thanksgiving prayers of gratitude have always been for the survival and prosperity of settlers, and in later years for “immigrants” without even passing concern expressed for indigenous populations. In fact, the U.S. began to call itself “a nation of immigrants” which makes clear that inclusion of indigenous peoples has not and never will be contemplated. Lest anyone continue to dream otherwise even against a historical backdrop of territorial theft on a mass level and genocide, in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh, the U.S. Supreme Court bluntly explained that settlers stole North America fair and square:
“While the different nations of Europe respected the right of the natives, as occupants, they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves…Thus, all the nations of Europe, who have acquired territory on this continent, have asserted in themselves, and have recognized in others, the exclusive right of the discoverer to appropriate the lands occupied by the Indians.”
The court then asked rhetorically: “Have the American States rejected or adopted this principle?” The court answered its own question by saying:
“The United States, then, [has] unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold, and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest…”
Neither the Supreme Court nor the population whose interests it represented had any qualms about any of this. That’s because, as far as the Justices were concerned: “…the tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness…”
The First Nations were not the only ones explicitly excluded from the U.S. project. They along with enslaved Africans and their descendants are the only two groups who did not willingly become a part of the settler colony, but rather had the U.S. imposed upon them. In the same way that the Supreme Court affirmed the purposeful exclusion of indigenous people, it likewise addressed the circumstances of Africans. In the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the court asked itself:
“Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights and privileges and immunities guaranteed to the citizen?”
As if to tell itself that it was a dumb question, the court noted:
“Yet the men who framed [the Declaration of Independence] were great men–high in literary acquirements–high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery.”
Thus, these two groups – indigenous nations and enslaved Africans – found themselves not only locked out of the settler project, but also targeted for oppression, exploitation, slavery and genocide. It is not surprising then that they would find their way to alliance as enslaved Africans who fled plantations were often given refuge in indigenous communities. Historian William Loren Katz wrote:
“…[T]he two peoples began to discover they shared some vital views of life. Family was of basic importance to both, with children and the elderly treasured. Religion was a daily part of cultural life, not merely practiced on Sundays. Both Africans and Native Americans found they shared a belief in economic cooperation rather than competition and rivalry. Each race was proud, but neither was weighed down by prejudice. Skill, friendship and trust, not skin color or race was important. Since Indians willingly adopted people into their villages, Africans found they were welcome.”
The allied communities often maintained an existence that was independent and self-sustaining. Many Africans who fled Georgia plantations found their way into Florida where they established farming communities alongside the Seminole. The success and prosperity of these communities was a palpable threat to the institution of slavery, and military campaigns to destroy these villages ensued. For many years, the Africans and Seminoles fought shoulder-to-shoulder against the U.S. military and scored victories. Of one of these victories in 1837, Katz wrote:
“The strongest country in the New World had received a stunning defeat at the hands of a small band of Black Indian guerrilla fighters. The battle of Lake Okeechobee became the most decisive upset the U.S. suffered in more than four decades of warfare in Florida.”
Notwithstanding the passage of time, the viewpoint that Africans and First Nations people should have no place in the U.S. project is still widely held. It accounts almost entirely for the MAGA phenomenon and that movement’s coded declaration that the erosion of white hegemony is the country’s biggest threat, and to make America great again is to make America white again.
The millions of confused MAGA white workers and the political demagogues who manipulate them are not the primary obstacle to African and indigenous liberation. That dubious distinction belongs to global capitalism and a U.S.-based empire. Together they prevent Africans in the U.S. from uniting with Africans all over the world to assert full control of the African continent and to create the world’s preeminent superpower capable of sustaining and protecting Africans everywhere. The U.S. empire also causes most to believe it unthinkable that the First Nations can reclaim all their stolen territory as well as claim reparations for genocide.
Nevertheless, panicked, and crazed MAGA people, police terrorism, the country’s economic collapse and gangster politicians have the potential to create immediate threats to African and indigenous security. An African/Indigenous alliance for purposes of community defense and survival may be prudent yet again. Such an alliance would appeal to revolutionary and progressive forces globally for reasons too numerous to list.
Within African communities, there are individuals who might resist an alliance because historically, five so-called “civilized” tribes owned enslaved Africans. The tribes were cynically pulled into the slave system to end their practice of providing sanctuary and support to African runaways and rebels. Also, a couple of these tribes were criticized because they treated enslaved Africans more like relatives than like property. Nevertheless, some Africans remain quietly resentful.
Such sentiments about history should not interfere with a frank assessment of the current shared interests of communities. Otherwise, we would have to consider that while indigenous communities owned Africans, there were many Africans who served as Buffalo Soldiers and killed indigenous people. And what of Africans in America who owned Africans; or the Africans in Africa who sold Africans into slavery? We are instead best served by remembering that both groups have a shared unique history of exclusion from the U.S. empire, and a need for allied struggle.
Modern era solidarity is not unknown. An oft-repeated anecdote recounts how in the 1970s Kwame Ture led a delegation of members of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party to stand between advancing police and American Indian Movement militants who occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ture reportedly proclaimed: “For y’all to get to the Indians, you’re going to have to go over us Africans!” In more recent years, the NDN Collective explained:
“Since our inception, NDN Collective has been committed to the work of decolonization, movement-building and the transformation of unjust systems. While we are committed to building the collective power of Indigenous people, communities and Nations, we recognize that in that decolonial work, Indigenous liberation is directly tied to Black liberation. While we build our collective power, we do so by standing alongside our Black relatives in their long-held fight for justice.”
Charise Cheney, an associate professor of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon said: “Our histories are very intimately tied. The connections that people are making between white supremacy and anti-Blackness on the one hand, and white settler colonialism on the other hand, has been a breakthrough moment in American history.”
Perhaps the time has arrived to use a day generally devoted to gluttony and football for serious planning for programs and projects that will ensure not only the health and safety of African and indigenous communities, but also a framework for global revolutionary struggles calculated to end settler colonialism and imperialism once and for all.