Please enjoy this holiday with your family, and I hope you find something to take home from my reflection of this holiday in 2019.
This week, many of your children made paper buckle-hats to celebrate one of America’s most delicious holidays. I hope you also enjoy the obligatory hand turkey as you open your refrigerator doors a hundred times while you prepare your sweet potatoes, squash, green bean casserole, stuffing, and other favorites. I can’t help but reflect on the pictures of the First Thanksgiving story I was told as a little kid...
Smiley people with buckles on their hats got off a wooden boat onto a big, gray rock. They shook hands with people with feather headbands, and the people with the feathers wholeheartedly welcomed the visitors. Since the pilgrims didn’t really know anything about the place they were visiting, the Native Americans shared food with them, and taught the people how to survive the winter. And they all lived happily ever after.
This story is obviously missing out on an extremely brutal history, which might be a lot for many five-year-olds to handle. Even in this super simplified and inaccurate version of events, I think both kids and adults can glean a lot of positive messages that are helpful to American culture. Those messages could and should be made more prominent so we don’t continue to make the mistakes the smiley buckle-hatted people did.
The main message children get from this story is the humanity and generosity of the Indigenous people helped the pilgrims to survive their new surroundings. Even with the stubbornness of the pilgrims to accept any influence from people they considered to be lesser, they were able to sit together and learn at least a few things because their survival counted on it. Yet there are other lessons we can learn, and those messages we should be embellished to help us grow a kinder society.
When I was little, we were encouraged to think of ourselves in the shoes of the pilgrims, but I think that idea should be forgotten. We are both immigrants and natives as Americans. We should help the other travelers who end up here as the Native Americans once helped the pilgrims. If we take ourselves out of the wooden shoes of the pilgrims, who were suspicious of the native people, we can be better visitors who understand we are only occupying a space for a limited time. We shouldn’t pretend we are now wearing the moccasins of the Native Americans either considering the unique nature of the true brutal story. We should have our eyes open to others so we can thrive better in this life, but additionally we should work to apply the campsite rule to all the spaces we occupy as natives and visitors (leave the area cleaner than when we came) to leave other humans and all other future occupants a good, habitable living space.
That campsite rule is kind of a shortened version of what many Indigenous groups might call the seventh generation rule. You may have seen this term in the grocery store in the cleaning products aisle, but it is far more than a laundry detergent brand. It is the idea is that people should take into account seven generations into the future for the actions they carry out today. We think about this in terms of the environment, but it can also be applied to other policies as well. This idea was clearly ignored by the Colonists, and has never really been learned and incorporated into American culture and law. If it had, people would have decided long ago to prioritize their natural resources above the industries that devastate them. In this system, where people must have jobs to survive, it may seem prudent to do anything to get a large and wealthy company to bring in more jobs. However, maybe it isn’t such a good idea to gift that company (Foxconn) four billion dollars in incentives to build a huge building that is likely to cause flooding for the residents downstate. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea if they make plastic products that you authorize millions of gallons of lake water per day that are likely to be polluted with toxic plastic chemicals when returned to the lake. Perhaps that much water being pumped out on a daily basis will destroy the ecosystem. That could really damage the fishing industry, the tourism of the lake, and other things people today as well as seven generations into the future will curse you for.
Maybe it is not such a good plan to spray all the food we eat with chemicals similar to Agent Orange that not only kill pests, but also kill good bugs like bees, which our grandchildren will still need around to pollinate their food plants. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to pull massive amounts of toxic chemicals out of the ground and put them in our water, air, and across our lands in general. Maybe we should find safer ways to boil water than sticks of plutonium. We need systems in which we are allowed to have human errors without consequences for huge swaths of the population for generations. In the case of nuclear, this nation alone has had over fifty oopsies not including the ridiculously lax security at nuclear missile sites that 60 Minutes covers every few years.
Senators Baldwin and Johnson would laugh at the idea of bringing F-35 Fighter-jets to Wisconsin if they thought beyond the money to the seven generations who would be threatened with the noise pollution, carcinogens, and possible nuclear fallout that could result from these massive war weapons in the middle of dairy country. The risks are simply too high as well in the continuance of other mining, oil, and gas industries. If Wisconsin and Michigan legislators cared seven generations into the future, and saw the thousands of miles of sulfuric acid-polluted rivers reflected in the future waters of Lake Michigan, they would arrest the Back 40 mine proposers for attempted poisoning and crimes against humanity. They would do the same to the corporate leaders asking for pipeline expansions through western Wisconsin, especially after seeing the desert from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Because our leaders don’t act in this way, and the people’s outrage is often allowed to be stifled, we have allowed ourselves to become a massive experiment under the conditions various business CEOs decide for us. They choose for all of us through agriculture and food, through manufacturing and non-renewable energy systems, through whatever these business owners deem profitable at the time. The U.S. is about seven generations old right now, and the choices we have taken as a nation have led us to a very worrying time for everyone. Perhaps we ought to move our thinking away from an apocalyptic model to one with a future that is happy and sustainable for the people two-hundred years after us. If we hear ourselves quoting the Onceler, or deriding the Lorax, we are still shamefully uneducated to a very important principle we ought to have learned long ago in the times of the first Thanksgiving.
The last lesson I would like to see embellished in the Thanksgiving story is that the pilgrims did not settle in a lawless land (as the characterization of the pilgrims’ “discovery and development” of America was implicit in the story I was told), and that the laws and culture was different. The pilgrims, like other colonists had an obsession for drawing boxes around everything and claiming ownership. Rather than observing the expanded conception of the commons that Native Americans had, the U.S. continued the compulsion to own everything and find the commons “tragic.” To this day, everything must have an owner for “good management.” Not only is all the land and water under some ownership, the airwaves and other intangible things have been privatized. The commons are lacking, and therefore seen as bad and mismanaged. However, if we thought of the natural state of ownership was common: that everyone commonly owns the natural resources, and most spaces including the digital, that we would all be expected to manage them well. We would not be encouraged to rob as much from the commons as possible, and leave as little as we can for others. We would share it with everyone and expect all people to respect what we collectively have. Considering how much we work to get children to learn about sharing, about cleaning up after themselves, and about playing nicely with others, the story of Thanksgiving holds those lessons. We should embellish these lessons and model them for our favorite hand-turkey artists to move toward a great future for us all.