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Thanksgiving In Beirut

[Mass Grave at the Massacre of Wounded Knee: Image from Wikipedia, Indian Costume: Costumes Galore] [Mass Grave at the Massacre of Wounded Knee: Image from Wikipedia, Indian Costume: Costumes Galore]

On November 24, people from across the United States will gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. They will travel (on the busiest travel day of the year), they will eat turkey and pumpkin pie, and they will shop at the orgiastic sales that are a fixture of what is perhaps the most widely celebrated holiday in the USA. Like all ideologically inflected nationalist myths, holidays such as Thanksgiving or Columbus Day both commemorate and mask the histories of violence that build and sustain nations. Such masking enables us to know that people lived on and were removed from the land but also allows us to disregard the fact that the descendants of those people still live in the reservations their ancestors were forced onto through acts of genocide. On November 24, people from across the United States will be, unwittingly or not, celebrating the ongoing success of settler colonialism.

The history of settler colonialism in the United States is as unavoidable as the millions of Native Americans that have been killed, raped, and ethnically cleansed since Columbus landed in North America in 1492. The success of settler colonialism is much more discreet. It is whispered in the names of cities such as Manhattan and states like South and North Dakota (words that are Native American and thus index the presence of a lost life world), it is bought in expensive well designed packages of Wild Rice, and it is stamped on the American flag, whose stars multiplied as more and more native lands were conquered and its people enslaved, killed and dispossessed. In fact settler colonialism has been so successful that even when it is recognized it is often seen as a “necessary evil” that enabled the formation and evolution of the United States of America. In this narrative, the colonization of North America was a civilizing mission that brought into the world the most liberal and democratic nation it had ever seen. But still, no matter how much settler colonialism has been normalized, the history of the Native American genocide cannot be erased because it is the history of the United States. It is an open wound that will never close. Even if it is not seen on the flesh, it eats away at the body and soul of a sutured together nation- and it leaves a mark that grows darker with scrutiny. This twinned history of Native American genocide and US state formation is quietly stubborn. Its traces can be found in the both the inherited memories and the inherited silences that are passed on from generation to generation. 

My great grandmother was a Native American, a member of the Chippewa nation. My grandfather, who recently passed away, was, as he put it, a half-Indian. He had a bible written in Chippewa that he took out of a special case and showed me on several occasions. My mother is now also a member of the Chippewa nation, as I will be if I choose to apply to our tribe and to the United States government for “recognition”. Every summer my family drives to their farm in Wisconsin, where they spend the Fourth of July weekend. My grandfather’s family is from that part of the country, and some of his siblings and their families still live there. His land is lush and beautiful. It is on a Native American reservation, although growing up I never heard it referred to as such. As I grew older and after I had visited the reservation I began to wonder why we called it “the farm” and what this politics of naming entailed. What histories of discrimination, disassociation, and assimilation are both contained and articulated through the naming of a parcel of land on a Native American reservation “the farm”? What happens when land that by definition requires its “owners[1]to be members of the Bad River Tribe of the Chippewa nation becomes a space for families to gather, barbecue and shoot fireworks on the Fourth of July? What does it mean to be a white Native American, as my grandfather was? He once told me that as a child his classmates called him racist names but that as an adult he was rarely recognized as anything other than white, particularly after he joined the US army. As he aged he grew more attached to his genealogy and his family’s history, in part motivated by the very real need to have his children “recognized” so that they could inherit the land on the reservation that he loved so much. I remember him unrolling paper that contained an imprint of his family tree, and how he pointed my mother’s name out on it for me, tapping his finger at the space below it to indicate my place. He would spread his papers on the dining room table, the same one that hosts the family’s annual traditional thanksgiving feast.

Growing up in Beirut, my mother made sure that we also celebrated Thanksgiving. My parents and siblings would convene for love and food, a tradition that constantly reminded me that my mother was an American in Lebanon, and that I was connected to a family and to a history in the United States. Growing up, thanksgiving in Beirut was a novelty. I would always have to explain why I was celebrating that day, and every year my mother would try, most times in vein, to find a Turkey. Nowadays, you can see Thanksgiving decorations in the supermarket, and it is not unheard of for families and friends to gather on the third Thursday in November for food and good company. This is partly because there are now more Americans or Lebanese who have lived in the United States living in Lebanon than ever before. It is also because as American pop culture becomes ever more hegemonic, that country’s holidays also begin to take on a new, decontextualized appeal. For me personally, Thanksgiving in Beirut has a different, almost subversive meaning. That is because about 100 kilometers to the south of my parent’s house where we convene, there is a more recent ongoing history and practice of settler colonialism; that of historic Palestine.

There are many similarities and many differences between the experiences of the indigenous peoples of Palestine and the Americas. Both peoples struggled, fought, and were branded terrorists, and, in the case of Native Americans, “savages” who were less human than their Euro-American counterparts. Both people’s lands were signed away by imperial decrees and later by newly minted state law. Both peoples’ lands were occupied by well-armed civilian settlements whose population slowly ate away at the landscape until they found themselves surrounded. Both peoples are proud and steadfast. But there are differences. 1492 or 1621 or 1890or 1831-1838 are not 1917, 1948, 1967, 1973 or 2010. Palestinians are not in the same situation as Native Americans are today. To compare the two uncritically does a disservice to both peoples. What they have in common is a technology of rule that they have been and continue to be subjected to. They have both struggled against this mode of power and they both continue to struggle. But settler colonialism has not (perhaps yet) succeeded in Palestine, despite years of encroachment, dispossession, and the adoption of apartheid-like policies by Israel. Palestinians are not faced with the silent decline of demographic death, their languages are not forgotten and their culture has not been reduced and commodified into Halloween costumes, major sports mascots, or cartoons produced by Walt Disney. In Palestine, the present is still contested, and the history of Israel-Palestine is an intellectual and political battlefield. In the United States, the present is not controversial at all. In fact it is “controversial” to demand attention and a modicum of justice for Native American lives and histories.  

Because settler colonialism is a project that has been so terrifyingly successful in the United States and Australia, the experiences of indigenous peoples should mobilize us to struggle against that mode of power and the racist weighting of human life that it licenses. The fact that most people celebrate holidays such as thanksgiving without reflection or that most kids who grew up playing cowboys and Indians think that the cowboys are the good guys should give us pause. It should scare us. It should also strengthen our resolve to remain steadfast against apartheid like technologies of rule that are born of the same logic; that to make space for some people to grow and prosper, others need to be removed, discriminated against, displaced, and regrouped to reservations, townships, Bantustans, or refugee camps.

This year, when I raise my glass with my family I will be thinking of many things. I will think of my grandfather and his finger tapping at his and my family tree, splayed out across the dinner table. I will think of both the impossibility and the intransigence of justice. This year, we should be thankful that a project similar to the colonization of the Americas has failed in South Africa, failed in Rhodesia and it has not yet been successful in Palestine (or at least not in all of historic Palestine). Personally, I am thankful for those who continue to struggle for those who fight against the normalization of settler colonialism. I am thankful that we refuse to render the historical archive of Israel and Palestine into a narrative that washes away ongoing histories of violence. I am thankful for those who live and die in what is left of historic Palestine. On Thanksgiving, I will give thanks to those who live and die in refugee camps outside of historic Palestine, and their stubborn refusal to be anything else other than Palestinian.

 


[1] The practice of land ownership and inheritance on Native American reservations is a legal relationship to the earth that indexes the near annihilation of native philosophies and life worlds.

12 comments for "Thanksgiving In Beirut"

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Thank you for this, and for giving new perspective to old ideas.

Shalabieh wrote on November 15, 2010 at 05:54 AM
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very nice, Maya.

mary kate wrote on November 16, 2010 at 10:58 AM
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Thanksgiving was not celebrated in the U.S. until the 1860s, and the terrible wave (to use an anachronistic but not inaccurate phrase) of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans was also not until the 19th. C.

The author is certainly correct that Thanksgiving is a nationalist holiday, and it is "an ideologically inflected" one, to use the author's phrase, but it is not quite as simplistic the article would have it. Most directly, Thanksgiving was inaugurated as a national holiday to foster support, among white Northerners, for the U.S. Civil War. Many motives went into fighting that war, but it had the undeniable effect of emancipating 4 million enslaved people of African descent.

SH wrote on November 17, 2010 at 08:07 AM
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The Chippewa drove the Sioux from the Upper Mississippi region, and forced the Fox down from northern Wisconsin. The Chippewa as well as other Indian nations dispossessed other Indian nations. How do you suppose they and others won their lands? Do you think the Sioux and the Fox just agreed to give them up to the nice Chippewa and the Chippewa, out of the goodness of their hearts found new lands for their enemies to live on? Killing and dispossessing others for their land and resources are just about as old as mankind. That's not an excuse for ethnic cleansing by the Israelis or the developing United States. It is just a fact. It would not be the Thanksgiving season without the obligatory pious, self-righteous, and self-serving Leftist essay linking the Palestinian cause with the ethnic cleansing of the native Indians in America.

Hester wrote on November 17, 2010 at 03:10 PM
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Dear Sh,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my piece for Jadaliyya. It true that in the 19th century the Indian Removal Act was passed and practiced to genocidal effect as in the Trail of Tears, the “cleansing” of the Western tribes, and the forced removal of Indians from wherever gold or other precious minerals were being discovered (this often meant that Indians were being removed from lands they were previously removed to). In 1823 the Supreme Court famously decided that while Indians could occupy lands within the United States, they could not hold title to those lands. Thus was a very “legal” reason for what had already been happening for centuries (documented by several revisionist scholars) as euro-American settlers kept pushing more and more inland. After the Supreme Court decision such colonial practices gained the full force of the US government and army. If you have any lingering doubt that what was being practiced during this time was “ethnic cleansing”, please read what the secretary of the Bureau for Indian Affairs had to say about that in 2000, from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

http://www.thepeoplespaths.net/govlaw/BIA175th000908GoverSpeech.htm.

Now, prior to the 19th century Native Americans were being massacred, invaded, worked to death, and raped. This was happening places such as Franciscan missions in California and in Pennsylvania where Sir Amherst, then commander of the British forces, in 1763 directed a subordinate officer to infect the natives with smallpox. . . "You will do well as to try to innoculate the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this exorable race." Immediately after US independence, settlers from the original colonies pushed into the Northwest Territories. In a pattern that was to be repeated again and again, once settlements were large enough they would appeal to the federal government for protection from the natives while the natives were appealing to the federal government to make the settlers abide by the treaties that the tribes had signed with the US govt. Invariably, again and again the federal government would dispatch troops to “protect” the settlers. (See Robert Williams Jr, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought). We need not look much further than George Washington, quoted by David E. Stannard (Oxford Univesity Press: 1992) as he instructed Major General John Sullivanto attack the Iroquois people, "lay waste all the settlements around...that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed". Washington also reportedly told his general not "listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected".

Now, as for Thanksgiving in fact being brought to the national forefront during the US civil war. While this is perhaps true the aim was to mobilize Northerners to finally fight to end slavery (although there were many other the reasons that the North could not allow the South to secede) to do so they commemorated and erased a history of colonial settlement and the acts of genocide that it licensed. In fact African Americans and Native Americans are both victims of the territorial and capitalist expansion of the United States, something that civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. understood all too well.

Maya wrote on November 17, 2010 at 03:51 PM
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Dear Sh,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my piece for Jadaliyya. It true that in the 19th century the Indian Removal Act was passed and practiced to genocidal effect as in the Trail of Tears, the “cleansing” of the Western tribes, and the forced removal of Indians from wherever gold or other precious minerals were being discovered (this often meant that Indians were being removed from lands they were previously removed to). In 1823 the Supreme Court famously decided that while Indians could occupy lands within the United States, they could not hold title to those lands. Thus was a very “legal” reason for what had already been happening for centuries (documented by several revisionist scholars) as euro-American settlers kept pushing more and more inland. After the Supreme Court decision such colonial practices gained the full force of the US government and army. If you have any lingering doubt that what was being practiced during this time was “ethnic cleansing”, please read what the secretary of the Bureau for Indian Affairs had to say about that in 2000, from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

http://www.thepeoplespaths.net/govlaw/BIA175th000908GoverSpeech.htm .

Maya wrote on November 18, 2010 at 03:01 AM
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Now, prior to the 19th century Native Americans were being massacred, invaded, worked to death, and raped. This was happening places such as Franciscan missions in California and in Pennsylvania where Sir Amherst, then commander of the British forces, in 1763 directed a subordinate officer to infect the natives with smallpox. . . "You will do well as to try to innoculate the Indians by means of blankets as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this exorable race." Immediately after US independence, settlers from the original colonies pushed into the Northwest Territories. In a pattern that was to be repeated again and again, once settlements were large enough they would appeal to the federal government for protection from the natives while the natives were appealing to the federal government to make the settlers abide by the treaties that the tribes had signed with the US govt. Invariably, again and again the federal government would dispatch troops to “protect” the settlers. (See Robert Williams Jr, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought). We need not look much further than George Washington, quoted by David E. Stannard (Oxford Univesity Press: 1992) as he instructed Major General John Sullivanto attack the Iroquois people, "lay waste all the settlements around...that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed". Washington also reportedly told his general not "listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected".

As for Thanksgiving in fact being brought to the national forefront during the US civil war. While this is perhaps true the aim was to mobilize Northerners to finally fight to end slavery (although there were many other the reasons that the North could not allow the South to secede) to do so they commemorated and erased a history of colonial settlement and the acts of genocide that it licensed. In fact African Americans and Native Americans are both victims of the territorial and capitalist expansion of the United States, something that civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. understood all too well.

Maya wrote on November 18, 2010 at 03:02 AM
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Dear Hester,

Of course Indian tribes fought each other, but your "comment" eerily resembles those that wish to whitewash what happened in historic Palestine, modern Europe or in Africa by pointing out that some Palestinian sold their lands, that some European Jews worked for the Nazis to in order to spare their own lives, or that some African tribes used to sell other Africans to European slave dealers. Somehow, these facts are supposed to make wholesale dispossession, colonization, and depopulation somewhat easier to digest. Clearly, such arguments seek to marshal isolated historical facts in order to gloss over and sometimes make excuses for large scale institutionalized violence predicated on the logic that the worth of human life is weighted differently. This logic of human inequality is what sustained the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians, African slavery in the USA, and the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. The fact that yes, Indian Americans had their own histories and that yes (shockingly) those histories contain wars does not in any way make genocide more digestible. I hope you agree with me.

Maya wrote on November 19, 2010 at 04:42 PM
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Dear Maya, Of course I agree with you, as was quite clear when I wrote: "That's not an excuse for ethnic cleansing by the Israelis or the developing United States." Did you not read that in my first comment? I do not deny what happened, so I do not see how my “comment”, “eerily resembles those who wish to whitewash…” “Of course Indian tribes fought each other” Fought? Such a bland word. Indian tribes did more than fight each other. Who’s doing the glossing over? I doubt any Sioux who were dispossessed and/or killed by the Chippewa felt the loss of the beautiful upper Mississippi region any less because it was not stolen by European settlers. I am sure those who survived to make a life in another region yearned for its forests and rivers, just as strongly as a dispossessed Palestinian might dream of the orange trees of Jaffa. That logic of human inequality you mentioned can be found in the history of just about every empire and country on earth. It is also what sustained the genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians, the ethnic cleansing of Black Mauritanians, and so many other victims. Unfortunately, their tragic fates were not caused by the United States, or the WEST, Australia or Israel, so their narratives are weighted differently and alas, are not deserving of mention in earnest essays by the comrades. It is your selective remembrance, so ideologically “by the book”, especially in that last paragraph, that diminishes your finer sentiments.

Hester wrote on November 20, 2010 at 11:41 PM
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Maya -

Your reflections on settler colonialisms past and present are a welcome, intelligent, and timely intervention. Thank you.

SH's comment led me to unearth once more Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation. It is notable that the "Great Emancipator" - who, it should be noted, was both a racist and an opponent of abolition (see Fredrickson's Big Enough to be Inconsistent) - did not once mention the indigenous people of the Americas in that speech of 1863, nor did he celebrate the day as a memorialization of the nation's originary moment as one of cooperation and harmony. The speech was, in fact, a paean to expansionism, and that should not surprise us given that it was Lincoln who signed The Homestead Act into law in 1862. Indeed, if the inauguration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was an political act of ideological effect, which sought to fortify the nationalist sentiments of white Northerners while erasing past and present injustices done to the indigenous people, then The Homestead Act was a political act of great material consequence, which initiated one of the largest territorial redistributions in U.S. history - 270,000,000 acres of land stolen and parceled out to individual settlers, a total of 10% of all U.S. lands (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act/). This undoubtedly aided in subduing an oft-unruly white underclass and aligning them to the purposes of the Northern political and economic elites during the civil war, destroying the plantation economy of the south, and in the process helped to free millions of slaves, as SH points out. But, and this is the author's point, it came at the expense of the virtual extermination of entire peoples and their histories.

I am not sure I understand Hester's complaint. You seem to resent the fact that the author chose to use the U.S. and Israel as examples, rather than the Chippewa, and that this choice somehow represents a "selective remembrance" of a historical past. However, I do not think a historical chronicling of ethnic cleansing is the purpose of this piece. I read the article, rather, as a criticism of a current and incomplete project of European settler colonialism in Palestine, using the U.S. as a historical comparison and warning, and a call to "mobilize us to struggle against that mode of power." Yes, there are innumerable examples of oppression, but I am not sure what that "fact" does to delegitimize the author's argument. I see the reasons for the author's comparison between U.S. and Palestinian projects as twofold: 1) The history of U.S. settler colonialism provides a more useful comparative case study when analyzing the settler colonial project in Palestine. Acknowledging the Armenian genocide or wars against the Sioux and Fox (we should both thank Wikipedia for our knowledge of the latter) as unjust or horrendous does not make them useful historical analogies for analyzing the violence of settler colonialism in Palestine. 2) Mobilizing U.S. opposition is crucially important in the campaign for ending that violence. Drawing a historical comparison to the U.S. serves the purpose of engaging an American public in terms which many can understand, if not relate to.

Thank you again, Maya.

John wrote on November 21, 2010 at 03:32 PM
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Touché to Hester's latest post, dated NOV 20, in which this reader finds the most agreeance.

We all have our preferred interests and a vantage point we tend to take when viewing historical events, even if doing so with the great desire to be objective. Furthermore, our preferences are ultimately likely linked to our civilizational background. This could easily be said of the article's author.

Still, is not all of human history about a power struggle and ultimately one group possessing that power over another, often times with quite ugly results to those not on top?

Without a doubt...

Almost every group (to put it simply) was at a loss of sorts at some point, left subject to another. The more capable would seem to have ultimately written history as they see fit.

With this in mind, should we not be more productive by collectively hoping and working for a better, more peaceful future, rather than crying over the spilt milk of historical and human nature?

As a last note, I'm sure every area of the planet sees a holiday here or there that is celebrated at the expense of one group or another. Is this not also the case in a Lebanon that officially recognizes oh so many public holidays?

Charlie wrote on November 24, 2010 at 10:40 AM
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Great piece! Thanks for sharing!

LJDB wrote on November 25, 2011 at 04:05 AM

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