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November 23 2019
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Captain Myles Standish holding the head of Wituwamat in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1623. Standish murdered Wituwamat when he tried to defend his tribe’s land from settlement.

Each November, grade-school children across the country celebrate the tale of the First Thanksgiving. Sometimes their teachers have them perform Thanksgiving pageants in which they dress up as Pilgrims and Indians to make friendship and launch the United States as a Christian, democratic beacon. Some progressive-minded schools add lessons about the “traditional” culture of the Wampanoag Indians who greeted the Pilgrims, void of any mention that this culture was not timeless but had evolved over millennia. However, after Thanksgiving season, indigenous people drop out of the curriculum, as if to reinforce the ideology of Manifest Destiny that nature intended them to disappear.

Using a shared meal as a symbol of Indian-colonial relations is a whitewash of the bloody expansion of the colonies and the United States. That history involved colonists and their successors waging dozens of wars against indigenous people marked by merciless killing, mass enslavement, and the seizing of Native territory as spoils. The aftermath included whites restricting indigenous survivors to impoverished reservations, reducing them to servitude, seizing their children for forced acculturation, and then taking what little was left of their land. Generations of white politicians, missionaries, teachers, and media justified this treatment by characterizing indigenous people as savage, lazy, incompetent, and alcoholic, whether by nature or nurture. This pattern played out across the entire United States, including New England.

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