Should we celebrate Thanksgiving?
Once the buffalo roamed the plains and the earth trembled beneath them. Once the passenger pigeons were as numerous as the grains of sand. Once the forests cloaked the Northeast in silent majesty.
The Europeans came. Unfortunately, the Native Americans didn’t have a big, beautiful wall to keep them out. They actually taught their new neighbors how to grow crops and survive in their new land. No good deed goes unpunished.
Hundreds of years later, we can talk about the Trail of Tears and the Indian Removal Act, discuss The Last of the Mohicans and The Lone Ranger… but what remains of Native American culture?
It’s not that Native Americans were some ideal people. They were human beings, just like the rest of us. And white people weren’t evil. Most were escaping persecution or poverty and wanted a better life for their children.
If we have sympathy for Mexican or Central American or Laotian immigrants to the United States, we have to also have sympathy for the Irish escaping the Potato Famine or Germans fleeing religious persecution.
Yet should we have a holiday that seems to glorify the extinction of a people, and myriads of Native cultures?
I used to live in New York City. It’s a food mecca. I could find amazing Italian food, kosher street food and authentic Salvadoran fare. I could try yak meat curry in a Nepalese restaurant and Thai spiced grasshoppers and woodworms. In my neighborhood growing up, there was a Greek bakery, a Chinese butcher with whole chickens in the window and an Indian sweet shop.
Yet before the Italian and Indian and Greek immigrants came to New York, it belonged to the Lenape, Rockaway and Canarsie tribes. Where are their restaurants? Do we even know what kind of cuisine they ate? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What is left of Native American culture?
This is not about guilt. First off, guilt is useless. Feeling bad about it won’t bring anything back. Besides, my parents came from India. My people were the ones Columbus was trying to get to, when he came to America. I think we dodged a bullet there.
Even the descendants of those who came over on the Mayflower shouldn’t feel guilty. You can’t blame someone for something that happened hundreds of years before they were born. It’s a good thing too, because we’ve all got a Simon Legree in our family tree somewhere.
But maybe this year, when I gather with friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ll say a prayer for the first inhabitants of this land I call home. I’ll remember them with solemnity and respect. And I’ll celebrate gratitude for the blessings I have, but not the losses suffered by others. I’ll try to learn more about their culture, because they should also be remembered. This was their land once, from sea to shining sea.