Was America ever great?

November 24, 2016

The myths about Thanksgiving are alive and well--but as Brian Ward and Alan Maass write, so is the history of resistance to violence and oppression.

IT'S THAT time of year, when many people will flock to family homes for the Thanksgiving holiday. And this year more than others, there will be some uncomfortable dinner conversations about the new president-elect.

Donald Trump ran for president promising to "Make America great again"--which begs the question that Thanksgiving has always raised about the real history of the U.S.: Was America great before?

The grade school story about Thanksgiving is that it marks a joint celebration of the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621. According to the legend, the Native tribe that welcomed a band of Europeans fleeing religious persecution and taught them how to survive in their new surroundings gathered for a feast to give thanks that the newcomers made it through their first winter.

But of course, waves of European settlers later returned the thanks by simply slaughtering the Indigenous people who got in their way. When the settlers rebelled against control by England, they established a new nation that eventually spread across the North American continent, expelling the Native peoples at every turn.

The aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890
The aftermath of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890

Thus, many Native Americans come to Plymouth, Massachusetts, every year to mark the holiday with a Day of Mourning to remember those who were lost due to European settlement.

Now, with the era of Trump about to begin, the frightening question many people will ask today is: Who will suffer to make America great this time? Thanksgiving reminds us that the U.S. has a bloody history, but we also know that the suffering and violence continues to this day.

BUT THERE is another side to America's history: resistance.

A smaller number of people--with much larger numbers across the country supporting them--will spend Thanksgiving and the days afterward celebrating that part of history when they travel to Standing Rock in North Dakota to participate in the struggle to defend Indigenous rights and to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

These delegations are arriving at a crucial moment. The builders of the pipeline, led by the corporation Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), are attempting to crush the protests that have stood in their way all year so they meet construction deadlines before winter sets in.

In the latest escalation of violence on November 20, police and company security moved in against a peaceful group of protesters trying to clear a public bridge, firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, and drenching the protesters with water from fire hoses, despite the frigid temperatures. More than 100 people were insured in the police attack, some of them very seriously.

Meanwhile, pressure is building on Barack Obama to take action before Trump can take over, and stop the project from being finished. The administration could shut down construction by deny permits necessary to extend the pipeline over the Missouri River.

The struggle at Standing Rock is a reminder that that colonial encroachment and the breaking of treaties with Indigenous Nations are still very much with us. The DAPL project has sparked a historic level of Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest a project that could poison water for Native peoples and many others downstream, and destroy sacred lands.

Thousands of people, Native and non-Native, have traveled to Standing Rock to stand against DAPL, and there has been a rising wave of solidarity protests and actions around the country.

The response of authorities in North Dakota and nationally has been very much in keeping with history--Morton County police have arrested more than 400 people for protesting the pipeline, and federal judges have mostly denied the legal protests against DAPL.

THERE'S SOMETHING else to remember about Thanksgiving that stands in stark contrast to the world according to Donald Trump.

The Pilgrims, after all, were refugees fleeing England in search for a better life where they didn't suffer persecution because of their religious beliefs. These early refugees were taken in and protected by the Indigenous population of New England.

But to Trump, refugees are a threat. From the start of his presidential campaign, he used xenophobic and racist stereotypes against people fleeing Syria and other war-torn countries. In particular, Trump promised to bar Muslims from coming to the U.S., claiming that this would protect the U.S. from terrorism.

Republican governors jumped on the same bandwagon last year and declared that they would refuse to allow refugees into their states, though they have no legal authority to do this. Though Barack Obama and the Democrats paid lip service to accepting refugees, the U.S. has taken in the pathetically low number of 10,000 Syrian refugees.

The contradictions of America's founding myths were reinforced during Trump's campaign. Out of one side of his mouth, he claimed that America was a great country, dedicated to freedom and opportunity. Out of the other, he spewed hateful rhetoric about refugees being terrorists and Mexican immigrants being "rapists." The candidate who claimed he would help out ordinary people took in $100,000 in donations from a top executive of ETP, the company building the DAPL on Lakota land.

This Thanksgiving, we should reflect on this history and recognize that America has never been great in the way that Trump means.

The history of the U.S. has a lot in common with the reactionary agenda that Trump has pushed. It is bloody and violent, and filled with the vilification and scapegoating of immigrants and refugees, whether they were Italian, Irish, Mexican, Syrian or Chinese. We are told that this is the "land of the free"--but the country was built on stolen Indigenous land and the labor of millions of slaves.

But resistance to these crimes has always been a part of U.S. history, as well. Refugees and immigrants demanded to be treated with humanity. Slaves struggled against bondage and inspired and abolitionist movement that finally won their freedom. Indigenous people have always fought oppression.

As Trump continues to fill his administration with one right-wing bigot after another, it's clearer than ever who he wants to "Make America great again" for, and how--unless we have something to say about it. Today, we should mourn those who fought and lost to European settlers, but we also should be thankful for the brave water protectors at Standing Rock and those out in the streets organizing against Trump's presidency.

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