It’s easy to take food for granted. It’s not just the abundance many in the industrialized world now have ready access to that’s so amazing; the astounding variety of food available is an impressive achievement in itself. Our crops and livestock are not something we encountered by chance, it took thousands of years of cultivation to reach the point where an inedible grass could become a fat cob covered in hundreds of juicy, berry-like kernels. Peoples all over the world have developed their own independent cultivation practices.
When new cultures come into contact with each other, it has often led to a revolution not just in food but society as well. One of the most radical transformations in the history of humanity was the so-called Columbian Exchange, the result of Europeans extracting resources from the Americas which were then distributed throughout Eurasia and Africa. Many of the food staples we take for granted today were developed by the indigenous people of the Americas long before Europeans arrived. Without American horticulture, the Italians would have no tomato sauce for their pizza, the Russians would be without vodka, and South Asia would be deprived of spicy curries. The introduction of corn to Africa supported expansive empires and facilitated the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The potato motivated a population explosion throughout Europe, while the medicine quinine allowed colonists to finally penetrate the “white man’s grave” of Africa. The native Amazonians discovered a way to stabilize rubber, which facilitated the revolutions in electricity and transportation that characterized the 19th century.
Ostensibly, Thanksgiving is meant to celebrate these achievements. When settlers from England, lacking the ability to farm in Plymouth, found themselves at the brink of starvation, the natives taught them how to survive, sharing the bounty of the New World with them and saving their lives. It’s a beautiful story of cooperation between two peoples from opposite sides of the world.
Of course, it is mostly just a story. The English settlers did have a feast with the Wampanoag, and there was a man named Squanto who taught them how to farm using techniques developed in the Eastern Agricultural Complex, one of the ten independent origins of agriculture we know of in the history of the world. Squanto of the Patuxet was able to communicate with the pilgrims in English because he had been taken to Europe as a slave in 1614 by Thomas Hunt, a Lieutenant for Captain John Smith of “Pocahontas” fame. He was living with the Wampanoag at the time because everyone in his tribe had died of disease by the time he managed to find his way back home. Although the pilgrims had introduced themselves to the Wampanoag by ransacking their villages and desecrating their graves, the shrewd Massasoit or Sachem (great chief) Ousamequin needed allies to counteract the rival Narragansett tribe. So, he supported the pilgrims’ permanent presence at Plymouth.
This ended up being disastrous for the Wampanoag. As the colonists continued to encroach on indigenous land, the Wampanoag under the leadership of Ousamequin’s son Metacomet allied with the Narragansett among other tribes in a final push to defend their sovereignty. Metacomet was captured and killed, his body mutilated, his skull mounted on a pole, and 500 of his tribe including his widow and child sold into slavery. There were atrocities on both sides, and by the end of it 60–80% of the native population had been killed, sold into slavery, died of sickness and starvation, or forced to flee to neighboring tribes.
For many, Thanksgiving is an annual reminder of the subjugation, domination, and genocide that began in 1492 and continues to this day. For many, it is a National Day of Mourning. This year in particular, it is a reminder that Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely to get COVID-19 than whites due to a lack of clean water, resources, and public health infrastructure. It’s not just history. Native Americans still experience extremely high levels of poverty, marginalization, and police brutality. Native communities experience the highest rates of suicide of all ethnic groups in the United States. Rates of homelessness are equally extreme. The conditions on reservations have even been compared to that of “third world” countries, with little to no control over their own resources.
As I read over indigenous sources for this article, I noticed one theme came up repeatedly. The goal is not to turn Thanksgiving into a feel bad holiday. Personally, I find self-flagellation indulgent and counterproductive at best, really just something else that moves the narrative focus away from victims. Aside from the wonderful sentiment of gratitude we should all take care to remind ourselves during times of trouble, Thanksgiving is a great time to focus on genuine, positive change. It’s an opportunity to open up an honest dialogue between people about our common history and to venerate the genius of the indigenous people whose inventions made our modern life possible.
We need that genius now more than ever. With global warming and industrial farm practices threatening the future of our food supply, scientists have started looking into traditional sustainable agricultural techniques developed by indigenous people with the goal of adapting our own infrastructure. Transitioning over to these systems provides us with an opportunity to empower indigenous communities while also securing a future for human survival. No matter where you live in the world, there’s a very good chance you have a reason to be grateful for the genius of indigenous people all across America. Let’s start acting like it.