In recent weeks, the slogan, “Occupy Wall Street” has become a cry of protest against the extreme wealth and poverty in this country. With Thanksgiving around the corner, the wealthiest 1% of the population continues to profit, while the rest of us have little to be thankful for.
These problems have been present since the first European settlers came to North America. They brought with them a system based on exploitation, displacing native communities. Thanksgiving is really the story of the occupation of this land by an exploitive system imported from Europe.
Before the Mayflower
There were 25 million natives living in North America when the first Europeans arrived. They had diverse tribal cultures and ways of living. While some tribes lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers, others lived in large-scale agricultural communities. In native communities, land was shared in common. These villages didn’t have extremes of wealth and poverty. Everyone had a right to what was produced. People worked together to benefit the entire community, and no one worked for the profit of someone else.
The First Thanksgiving
The story of Thanksgiving begins in the Massachusetts Bay area. The Pawtuxet Indians inhabited this region for centuries. But they were wiped out by a smallpox epidemic, brought by a European expedition in 1614. Then in 1620, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by English settlers on the land of the dead Pawtuxet. The first winter for the colony was ruthless. The colonists didn’t know how to live in the new land. The Massachusetts colony would not have survived, but they received help from the nearby Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag taught the Europeans how to hunt, fish, and grow new crops. The Massachusetts settlers thanked the Indians and declared a feast of Thanksgiving.
But just 20 years later things had changed. The governor of Massachusetts issued a “scalp bounty”, paying people from the colony to kill the Wampanoag. The settlers’ exploitive society was expanding, and so they needed new territory. The wealthier settlers had grown rich, and brought over servants to work the land. These landlords wanted more land, more profit, and the Indians were in the way. The Massachusetts landlords claimed that they deserved to replace the natives because English society was superior. So the Wampanoag were repaid for their help just two decades later by the theft and occupation of their lands. This is the true story of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving in 2011
Of course gathering together with loved ones and sharing a meal is one of the few pleasures we can, and should enjoy. But we should also remember this story – because the problem of exploitation at the root of this society is a problem that has existed from its foundations. Today, we’re still living in that same exploitive system. We need to reverse that occupation, and build a new society without exploitation.