Tossing the Pigskin on the National Day of Mourning

By Adrienne Sockwell

In some circles the meaning of Thanksgiving has become a bit of a contemporary political football, caught somewhere between the tradition of feasting and celebrating the American family and heralding the eve of extreme retailing. For many families the fourth Thursday in November marks the gathering of loved ones, a traditional meal which often includes turkey surrounded by infinite sides or more recent vegetarian substitutes, as well as the tradition of watching Thanksgiving Day football. Since the late 1960s the experience of watching the Detroit and Dallas NFL games has become as much of a tradition as the turkey feast.  As we preoccupy ourselves with family, feasting and football, and more recently shopping, our focus in this issue is to take time to think about the origins of these practices, or the ways that the meaning of each of these concepts might have become severed from those origins.

As more people question the veracity of the first Thanksgiving story, some realize we have adopted a particular and uncorroborated narrative that includes a feasting friendship between the Indigenous people who lived on the Atlantic’s eastern shore and the English emigrants who left their homeland looking for a “New World.” Even though we have evidence that these two groups would end up in violent warfare which culminated in the death and dispossession of countless Native people, many of us choose to mark this so-called first Thanksgiving as a beginning, a founding story of a new nation.  But suspecting that the version of events we’ve been taught might be wrong doesn’t seem to change the way we celebrate the day. What actually took place was the marginalization of Native people pushed off of their ancestral land to make space for what would become America. What does it mean to celebrate a day of union, thanks and togetherness which turned out to be the opposite of what really happened?

And as we think about unions and football, the NFL players union, just a few months earlier this year, challenged the league’s policy of stifling their protest of police brutality during the national anthem. An anthem to the nation created to protect the liberty of its citizens and their freedom to worship and assemble.  Enjoying football, like the turkey feast, has become a mainstay of our uniquely American holiday. And like so many American ideas, we rarely question their meaning. We participate in the ritual of the Thanksgiving Day game watching Black men among the players who are allowed to thrill and entertain viewers with athletic feats on the field, but are not allowed the privilege of non-violent protest to question a nation that does not always value their lives off of the field.

So, we can ask ourselves, how can we enjoy the tradition of watching a game which silences protest during the anthem to a nation that celebrates freedom? How can we enjoy the tradition of a feast which commemorates a peaceful harvest between settlers and Native people when their meeting eventually culminated in the attempted destruction, removal and dispossession of the people who had for centuries made their home on the land? What exactly are we thankful for?

We don’t have the answers to these questions, but we hope you will think along with us about some of the ways we use concepts such as Thanksgiving and commemoration to function as a kind of shorthand – a code for what America means and who it stands for. And, who it kneels for.

In “‘your countrymen will lie much’: Trump, Warren and the Continued Misreading of Pochohantas, Nakia Parker and Brad Dixon revisit the life of Matoaka (Pocahontas) and tie her experiences with the larger history of the Pamunkeys in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries–and on to the present day. Now a legendary figure, subject of film and song, Pocahontas remains a touchstone for settler visions of early America. Parker and Dixon’s piece points out how both Trump and Warren have misread Pocahontas and how we have all missed a chance to bring genuine Native American political issues to the forefront of American politics.”

Maria Esther Hammack discusses the varied meanings that Thanksgiving has taken amongst her immigrant family living in North Carolina. She explains that even though we rarely associate any state other than Massachusetts when commemorating the holiday, other states have historically-backed claims to have held the “first” ever Thanksgiving on US soil. In Thanksgiving Reconsidered: A Brief History of an Early American Tradition Maria offers a brief history of “first Thanksgiving” claims from Texas and Florida – Thanksgiving celebrations that happened long before the 1621 Massachusetts date.

In, Black and Native Historical Remembrance and Celebration in Texas: Seminole Days, Brooks Winfree analyzes Seminole Days, an annual event where the descendants of the black Seminole Indian Scouts who fought for the American Army in the late-nineteenth century, gather in Brackettville, Texas to celebrate their largely ignored and marginalized ancestors.

And in “A Sort of Homecoming,” Ted Banks revisits an intense week of student activism in the spring of 1990 and reflects on its legacy. While researching the history of campus monuments for the Department of Diversity and Community Engagement, Ted came across a cohort of names and a series of events that he remembered from his time at the University of Texas as an undergraduate.

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