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Part 2: Thanksgiving: An Autopsy

By Dr. Matthew Cobb and Kevin Kot

Broken Lands is a series about reparations and honoring our treaties with Native Americans. Bringing together both settler and Indigenous voices, this series reflects on our shared history and possibilities of how we can begin to live well together here now and into the future.

If we are looking at repairing our relationships, what do we do with Thanksgiving? How does the holiday's popular mythology obscure the realities of our history, and how do these misleading myths get in the way of connecting with one another and our Creator?

Host Matt Cobb (left) gets into this subject with Kevin Kot (right), an Ojibwe elder and member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Kevin is also the American Indian Education Coordinator for the Carlton School District in Minnesota. Kevin shares some of the harmful aspects of the Thanksgiving Myth, which he shares with his students and how he directs them to start thinking about American history in more accurate ways. Matt and Kevin also talk about how different interpretations of the Christian faith can both negatively or positively impact how settlers and Native Americans can live together. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and readability.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Could you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Kevin Kot My name is Kevin Kot Nindizhinikaaz, that's my Anishinaabe name. Makwa Nindoodem­, that's my clan, which is Bear Clan. And Miskwaabikaang Nindoonjiba, that's my community, which is Red Cliff, up in Northern Wisconsin. I always like to say all of that. It kind of centers me when I have to say who I am. Currently, I'm an American Indian Education Coordinator for the Carlton School District in Minnesota. And so that's my job right now.

Dr. Matthew Cobb So today we're going to start from the context you're in as an educator. We're going to look towards that time when the school district starts to get out the pilgrim hats and the feathers. You can see the kids in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, and they start doing this thing called the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

But really, as we all are trying to understand, those people that came over from Europe were suffering a lot of post-traumatic stress and maybe even persecution from a religious standpoint. They were coming here to be free so they could practice their religion. These Europeans are showing up with a lot of collective trauma in their bodies. And I know you deal with that on a daily basis with your own students.

So they brought that trauma here. And then this concept of Thanksgiving was just kind of dead on arrival because they just started discharging all these negative emotions on the land and the people. There's no other way to tell it. It was kind of that way.

All of that is coming from my white perspective. And I've tried to educate myself, but I really love to hear from you and especially for our listeners to understand what is this thing we call the Thanksgiving holiday.

Kevin Kot Well we know what the myth is. The narrative tends to go: here we had these friendly Indians–of course, they're never identified—and they welcome the Pilgrims to this place here and had this great meal. They teach them how to live in this new world. But basically, the story is that they handed off America to these white Europeans.

The problem is that this story doesn't identify what the tribe is. Who are the Wampanoag? What is their story in this? Part of their story is: this is not the first meeting that they had with people from somewhere else. They've had over 100 years of this experience. I believe that when the Pilgrims came off that Mayflower, they already had two English-speaking people. Well, how did they learn to speak English? We don't tell that part of the story. When Europeans had these other contacts with Native Americans, these people were taken as slaves back to Europe. This is where they learned how to speak English

So, these people were the Wampanoag. All this gathering together wasn’t about being friendly. It was really about these people [the Wampanoag] who had had an epidemic that ravaged their people before the Pilgrims ever came. And I think it was estimated that almost two-thirds of their population was wiped out, both their old and their young.

When these Pilgrims came and they have this feast together, this was more about the Wampanoag creating an alliance with them because they always had some rivals around them. In a sense, the Wampanoag population was decimated. They wanted to come to an agreement with these Pilgrims and this was an alliance. This was not about this great feast together. It was really more about survival, and how they were going to create this alliance.

When these Pilgrims started having these Thanksgiving Days, in the beginning, they never had a great meal. What they were doing during that time was that they were fasting and praying. It was never about this big meal. When we start to look at the origins, I think they're talking about like around 1769 or so when this started coming out from the descendants of these Pilgrims creating this story. They wanted to create this story that these Pilgrims were kind of the founders of America. That's the story they wanted. And that's the story that started to take hold. And it became very popular. It became so popular that when you come up to Abraham Lincoln's time, he's the one that made Thanksgiving the holiday during the Civil War because he was trying to unite the country.

So we go all the way back there but then we never tell much after that. We never talk about the King Philip Wars. Philip isn't anybody from Europe at that time. A lot of the Wampanoag and others were taking on English names. And this particular Wampanoag leader was named Philip. So they tried to unite themselves together enough to try and push back all these colonies who have taken more and more lands. They recognized if they didn't do something, they were going to become enslaved to these Europeans and they would have no land anymore.

And really, that kind of leads me to how this connects for me as an Ojibwe person. It brings me to the stories of the seven fires prophecies. For anybody who doesn't know about that, first, we were probably neighbors with the Wampanoag. But we had these prophets that came to the people and talked to them about a time coming that they needed to take this migration. They were told they needed to go westward because they couldn't stay where they're at. If they were to stay where they were–and this was before any contact with any Europeans–if they were to stay where they were, they would no longer be a people. And so that's where their journey took them. But these Wampanoag, they decided to stay there. And that's where this connection comes in.

So when I started thinking of Thanksgiving and start to remember, this is what this holiday is about. But I get the feeling a lot of churches only have the one story. They continue to talk about this story with the Pilgrims and about how Christianity had its manifest destiny here. They were going to be a great nation that was going to bless all the peoples of the earth.

Dr. Matthew Cobb Well, it definitely goes back to the first book in the Bible, for sure. You get that manifest destiny from the “dominion” in Genesis 1 and 2. “Dominion” means to dominate, or have power over.

Kevin Kot Let me read what they wrote down in the Mayflower Compact:

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.”

[It’s as if] this is like the only nation that has ever been founded for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith. But that's very problematic because here these people are fleeing from persecution. But what they don't realize–and we see this in all kinds of different places, even in South Africa–is that when you're oppressed, if you don't get rid of all that colonialism, you become a worse oppressor than the one that was oppressing you because you never got rid of that.

And to me, that's where I think about this Bible story. Why did God lead Israel from Egypt out into the wilderness? Because the Israelites had a lot of Egyptian in them. They had a lot of their thinking about the way things were supposed to be. And you have to get rid of that. You have to.

We need to get rid of this thought that “this is how this is.” You decolonize and then you come back as a real community–a caring, loving community. And to me, I think when it talks about Jesus being “the Way,” that's what he is teaching. He was the Way to decolonize. That's what he stood against; that's why the empire crucified him. I mean, they wanted to kill him because he was not all about empire. And that's where we are today and we have to reflect on that a little bit. So non-native people can actually see and sit with this and see: “We didn't have a manifest destiny.” Maybe God was taking them, and this is just my thought, maybe God was taking the Europeans out into the wilderness to get rid of all that they had in them that they didn't need anymore and really teach them the Way.

Was it really that they [Europeans] were going to be showing these people [Native Americans] a greater way? Because I just find more of my teachings are much more relevant than some of the other teachings that I get from Christianity. It gives it more meaning.

Dr. Matthew Cobb I was just thinking when you say “decolonize” that it's sort of like we have to deprogram or debug. We get these antiviruses for our hardware so that all this stuff doesn't come and mess up our software. But I'm also thinking, it's not that easy to decolonize. You can't just go out and buy an antivirus and it's not a technical fix. What you're talking about, this decolonizing, it's going to take generations. But if we don't start now, then we'll just keep handing it off from one generation to the next, to the next, to the next. I like how you said it with Jesus being that Way. Way means walking. And the people were walking from over there to the West because they received that prophecy from Creator.

The other thing you said that really struck me, Kevin, was how those people came over traumatized. Maybe they were led out into the wilderness. Well, what they saw in the Native Americans was paganism and evil, and the devil. They had witchcraft trials–all those things were going on over there, the Salem witch trials and all that. And I was just thinking maybe they were a self-fulfilling prophecy for themselves. They were seeing that all these things that were inside of them, all these traumas that they weren't healing, they were projecting them out onto the people that were already here. And they said, “Oh, well, look at that demon,” or “Look at that pagan,” or “They're not like us. They're not even human. So I guess we are the first humans here.”

And that's what they called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” I keep learning about that Doctrine of Discovery that goes way back. And just because it's rooted in the Holy Roman Empire, a different empire [than ours], doesn't mean it's not also staining our souls.

Kevin Kot Yeah, that's very true. And I think that when they came over, they end up having this idea they were the new Israel. So these native people, they're the Canaanites. They have to drive them out.

Somebody said something once that really struck me. They said, when you're really being blessed, that's probably the most dangerous time in your life. Because that's the time when you can go in the wrong direction, if you equate being blessed with “Oh, I'm on the right path,” just because you're being blessed.

Dr. Matthew Cobb You're getting righteous.

Kevin Kot But I think sometimes we even have that mixed up about what the mercy of God is and the loving-kindness of God. I think sometimes we should change the word “mercy” to “loving-kindness.” In some translations “Gichi-manidoo” is “Great Spirit” but also it's “Beautiful Great One,” that kind gentle Spirit. So sometimes I think we need to change words just because we get too much associated with different words.

Dr. Matthew Cobb So there's sort of like that universal law of correspondence that I learned a long time ago. If you got that long view, you can start to see how things are unfolding here. And the arc of the narrative is so much longer and rounder than some of the short-term stories that we tell. And in this one that you've been doing an autopsy on, this national holiday that we call “Thanksgiving,” I think that's really a short, short shelf life on that story. It's only been around, like you said, for a couple of hundred years. And man, that's really a short amount of time compared to the prophecy of the seven, sometimes eight, council fires. That story is maybe 9,000 or 10,000 years old.

Kevin Kot Yeah, so we just try to share what we can with the students. Because we know that they don’t get taught that in the classrooms. So we try to share that to let them know. And sometimes you're out there correcting the teacher, which is good because they are our leaders. So they're learning to take courage, speak up, and be brave.

Dr. Matthew Cobb I know there's no quick fix. There’s no switch that we can turn on to decolonize our minds and reset them. But I think you've given us a clue. As a white male Christian pastor in a Protestant denomination, you've given me a clue of how I can set my mind in a different way when I approach an Anishinaabe elder or someone that I know I'd like to have a deeper conversation about some of these things. What we're talking about, I think is what we try to do in church. We try to make it a refuge and a sanctuary where people can come and hopefully be their true selves and really bare their souls in front of their God and obviously their community.

Kevin Kot Right. Yeah, just be authentic. Society teaches us not to be authentic.

Dr. Matthew Cobb And then, if you're authentic first, I think it's so much easier to get to that place of reciprocity. So it just seems it's just the natural step after authenticity. It's like, “Well, what's the next step here? We're being authentic. Well, how about some reciprocity? How about some reparation or some restoration?”

And that's what this podcast series is all about, this decision that was made in Duluth about some property that was sold. The decision was not just to stuff the money away in some endowment fund. Let's walk back and have a relationship again. And at least, don't plead ignorance, but say, yeah, we're going to correct something here and this is what we're doing with it. So acknowledging there have been some missteps, and that's really saying things in a pretty glazed-over way: “missteps.” I think everybody knows this is R-rated stuff and not for the faint of heart if you really get into this history. It's going to be an autopsy. And that's what you've been able to do for us today, Kevin.

I want you to have the last word. So I'm just going to say, we're coming to a nice place here, a nice closure for this little episode. And boy, I really appreciate you and I'm glad to know you. And if we become close friends, I think my life will be a heck of a lot more fun. And a lot more laughing and a lot more of that authenticity coming through. So thank you.

Kevin Kot Miigwech. I don't really know what words to say. I think for me, some of the biggest changes we can make is, if you're looking in the Bible, just try and recognize that some things are from an empire point of view, and some things come from a Creator-Creation point of view. Genesis is such a Creator-Creation point of view. Then you get into different areas of the Bible, and especially when you're talking about kings, it gives more of an empire view. And to understand there are some differences there. That's one way to start to decolonize a little bit. There are a lot of good people that have been sharing their thoughts, and you just have to kind of look it up, reach out, and ask if you want to know more.

Other than that, I don't really have a lot more wisdom. Just be authentic and be truthful. It's hard to be because sometimes when you're not sure how you're going to be accepted for being truthful so we always put on this facade. But find people that you can be truthful with. That makes a big difference in life. That's all I have to say. Miigwech. Thank you for listening.


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