A Thanksgiving Lesson

Remembering hard truths over self-gratifying myths.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Thanksgiving Day used to be one of our most cherished civic holidays. On that day we celebrated our history, our faith, and our Republican government. In the stories told on that day, we acknowledged that though we are people whose touchstones are inalienable rights that no government bestows and no other human can take away, we are still a people of community and traditions, part of what G.K. Chesterton calls the “democracy of the dead.” All those who have come before us have left a legacy of their experiences and wisdom, their failures and successes, the tragic betrayals of their own ideals, and the achievements that fulfill those same ideals.

Of course, that traditional understanding of Thanksgiving has long decayed. Either it has been banished to the vulgar limbo of televised football, black Friday sales, the latest movie, and excessive consumption of calories and sugar; or it has been condemned to the revisionist hell where every belief about our history and its ideals have been stripped of their mythic camouflage to reveal irredeemable crimes, like land-grabbing, slavery, and oppression directed against the original inhabitants of the New World

History and our ancestors now are dragged to the bar of judgment to be condemned by what Chesterton also called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Yet those self-proclaimed rich and comfortable Javerts­­––who think they have the wisdom to pass judgment on the same people and past that created them–– are laughably ignorant of history and its tragic context. For in setting the record straight, the revisionists oligarchs have perpetuated an equally mythic picture of Indians, one that distorts and loses sight of their complex humanity and leaves them mere political sticks for whipping pale-faced political enemies.

From the very beginning of the European encounter with indigenous American, the Indian has had to bear the burden of such mythic expectations. Columbus himself saw in the Caribbean Indians the denizens of a lost Golden Age, that long-ago time when people lived in simple harmony with nature, knowing neither war nor property nor law nor greed: the Indians, Columbus wrote, were “guiltless and unwarlike, very gentle, not knowing what is evil, nor the sins of murder and theft.”

Increased contact with Indians soon disabused Europeans of these idealizations. For ages before Columbus, warfare, scalping, torture, and massacres of women and children were going on across the continent, as attested by the archaeological record. Nor should we be surprised. Like humans all over the earth, Indians competed violently for scant resources with others who needed them just as badly.

By the 19th century, the Indian also had become the embodiment of another Golden-Age motif–– human harmony with a maternal nature who freely bestows her gifts on her children. The Indian was transformed into the natural ecologist, communing with nature, careful not to waste the bounty a beneficent which Mother Earth had provided. We all know that Plains Indians, for example, killed only the bison they needed, making use of every scrap of bone and gut. Then the white man came along, shooting bison from trains, driving whole herds to extinction. Thus in 1841 the painter George Catlin apostrophized the Indian and the bison as “the joint and original tenants of the soil, and fugitives together from the approach of civilized man.”

Today, the Indian as Noble Savage ecologist is firmly lodged in the national consciousness. Remember that early 70’s anti-littering commercial with Iron-Eyes Cody––in reality an Italian actor–– crying a manly tear while pale-face slobs trash nature?  Unfortunately, the Indian Ecologist is a myth no truer than the picture of Puritan-Indian harmony enshrined in Thanksgiving Day posters. Like all peoples in human history, American Indians exploited their harsh environment in order to survive, their impact on nature limited only by small numbers and crude technologies.  

Yet even then, the Indians before Columbus radically altered their environment. For example, they used fire extensively to clear forests for farming, promoted tree species more useful to them, and facilitated travel and hunting. Nor were they as careful in killing game than we are led to believe by myth. Whole herds of game were driven off cliffs, with no regard whatsoever for modern ecological conceptions of waste or conservation.

Nor did Indians worship a bountiful Mother Earth. Contrary to modern Romantics who take for granted an adequate supply of cheap, safe food, Indians were practical realists who were concerned with survival, not communing with a nature whom they regarded with fear and awe, rather than our flabby “spiritualism” subsidized by capitalism’s surplus wealth. Nor did they worry about waste or extinction, concepts absent from their worldview. Indeed, in the religion of many tribes, dead game was reincarnated––thus the more animals one killed, the more there were.

Again, in this, the Indians were simply behaving as all peoples have in human history, for whom the natural world was filled with fearsome, fickle, destructive forces indifferent to human survival. For all pre-modern humans, starvation and famine were concerns more important than whether or not their actions damaged the environment, threatened animals with extinction, or disrupted some presumed primal harmony with Mother Earth. They were worried about eating one more day.

Yet to point out that American Indians were no different from other human beings is to invite charges of racism, or at the very least of being insensitive to the real suffering which European contact left in its wake. That the European discovery of the Americas was a disaster for the peoples living there is a truism, though we should remember that bacteria did most of the killing. Yet all human history is a tragic record of vast movements of people searching for resources, and willing to use violence against and displace those who already possess them. The Persians, Romans, Arabs, Huns, Mongols, Turks, Bantu, Khmer––and don’t forget Hollywood’s favorite Indian, the Sioux––all wrought devastation on the peoples unfortunate enough to be in their paths. For the Indians, the European invasion of the New World was one more act in the long tragedy of human history.

Moreover, reducing the European contact with American Indians to a therapeutic melodrama of good and evil ultimately dehumanizes both sides. Loading the Indian with our mythic obsessions does nothing, of course, to change the past, and actively distracts from solving the very real problems that too many American Indians face today, none of whom are served by our Golden-Age daydreams.

No Indian benefits from the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, fake Cherokee identity of Elizabeth Warren, one that worked because it traded on the myths that have been enshrined in our culture from dime-novels to university Indian studies programs. No Indian benefits from activist scolds’ attempt to bully ball teams into changing their Indian mascots––an act of contempt for real Indians, most of whom like those symbols of their identity and traditions. No Indian benefits from school curricula teaching fake history to middle-class whites slumming in noble-savage fantasies cooked up by Disney Studios and pale-face screenwriters. No Indian benefits when business projects that could bring economic benefits to reservations are stalled because they might offend some Indian religious belief that in many cases is very likely a modern invention, or because apocalyptic global warming policies multiply the regulations and permits needed to build infrastructure and create jobs that benefit Indian tribes

Most important, Noble Savage Indianism serves an identity politics that reduces individuals to some fantasy group heritage, one predicated on their grievances as victims, and then demands benefits for the group so defined. But such politics run counter to the fundamental premises of our political order. Like everyone else, American Indians are individuals first: their rights are those our political system confers on individuals, and that is how they should be treated––as unique individuals, not as the mascots of some imagined idealized identity invented by whites to gratify their mythic longings, and soothe their disaffection from the high-tech affluent world they have no intentions of abandoning.

A lie liberates and benefits no one. Instead, we should proceed with a clear-eyed recognition of the tragic complexity of history, with all its contradictions, failed good intentions, and mixed motives. And we should remember that in America at least, individuals, not fabricated group identities, are the locus of political rights and responsibilities.

So this Thanksgiving Day, rather than indulging our gratifying myths, or preening about our superior sensitivity and patronizing disdain for politically favored victims, let’s remember the hard truth of universal human evil and failure, at the same time giving thanks that despite all the suffering and misery of history, on this land a world was created where millions of individuals from all ends of the earth live free from the violence, hunger and tyranny our ancestors had to endure.