Indian Nations, The United States & Citizenship

By John Mohawk -- Seneca Nation

In the beginning, the question of how to view Indian

nationhood and citizenship wasn't a question at all. We are

reminded that how things came to be the way they are evolved in a

history entirely outside the control, and indeed outside the view,

of the indigenous peoples of the world, and that the evolution of

the idea of citizenship and its application to indigenous peoples

is an idea which has been created and molded to suit the needs of

people other than the subjects.

In some areas of Indian Country, the concept stirs deep

passions. There are many among the Haudenosaunee who deny that

they are citizens of any country other than their own, while some,

notably Oklahoma Indians, assert dual citizenship regularly. Still

others are confused about their citizenship, and regularly reply

that they are United States citizens without thought of their

indigenous nation.

The reason for this state of confusion lies not so much in

the absence of information as in the fact of vagueness about how

and why indigenous peoples of the Americas were confronted with

the idea of citizenship. Citizenship was, and for many Indian

peoples remains, an alien idea, and for good reason.

Lawyers can argue about the exact legal definitions which

cloud the term. Social historians can affirm that at the time of

the Columbian encounter at the end of the fifteenth century,

citizenship was practiced on the European continent was

predictably different from the concept as used today. The world's

indigenous peoples are, of course, a special case, even though

indigenous peoples worldwide suffer similar problems coping with

the intrusions of states. As the history of the European

expansion and subsequent invasions of the Americas, Asia and

Africa (as well as numerous places such as Australia and islands

without number) they encountered peoples all over the globe.

It is extremely enlightening, for the purpose of determining

the identity of the Indigenous nations (as opposed to the extent

of the rights and obligations of *citizenship*), that we begin our

tale at the beginning. The most interesting work on the subject

of European law as it existed during the centuries leading to the

Columbian era is a work by Harold J. Berman entitled _Law and

Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition_ (1983).

This work covers a lot of territory but, on the subject of

citizenship, Berman points out that during the centuries prior to

Columbus legal customs had arisen on the continents which spoke to

the issue of citizenship.

In feudal Europe, there arose a peculiar way of viewing the

land. In some sense, land and country were indistinguishable.

England was, in the custom of the day, the sum of its parts, and

its parts were Sussex, Essex, etc.. The people who represented

those parts were the aristocracy, thus York was not only a

geographic area, but also a person. When the king ordered, as he

sometimes did, "Go and fetch York," everyone in the kingdom knew

who he was talking to about. Feudal relationships define humans

as assets which belong to the land, or *go* with the land. The

centuries have blurred our ability to understand that in 12th

century France a person was born to a place, that place was ruled

by an aristocrat and the aristocrat was, at least in theory,

beholden to a sovereign.

Thus, the sovereign owned the kingdom, it was his to do with

as he pleased in theory or as he could get away with in practice.

A serf born to a district was perceived as a person who *went*

with the property. He was, in effect, little better than a

chattel slave, a person owned by a military aristocracy which,

during some periods, held unlimited sway over his life and

property. Beginning about the eleventh century, this began to

change in some parts of Europe.

One of the elements of change was the rise in Europe during

these centuries of cities. The cities were unlike the rural

subdivisions of the kingdom in that gradually they obtained a

degree of autonomy from the system of feudal lords. In time, the

cities came to be, in practice, havens from the arbitrary and

sometimes brutal rule of the aristocrats. A practice arose which

enabled a person who found his way into the confines of a city and

who was able to survive for a year and a day became a *citizen*

(literally from the Greek, meaning a person who lives in a city),

and in time citizenship meant that the city state guaranteed that

person certain rights. Predictably, the first right was against

capture and forced reenslavement at the hands of his former

master. [*This is a very general treatment of this somewhat

complex and highly variable subject, but then this is a short

paper. Berman goes into it at length.*]

Thus far in this story, there are no indigenous peoples.

Although there are numerous distinct peoples on the European

continent, and although at one time in European history it can be

successfully argued that some of these peoples were indigenous in

the sense they occupied the land as a distinct people prior to

some colonization, for our purposes there were no peoples who were

*indigenous* in the modern sense of that word on the European

continent following the Crusades. "Indigenous peoples" is really

a term we were forced to invent to distinguish the peoples which

occupy a land mass at the time of the European invasion from other

peoples, some of whom do not exist at the beginning of that


The first modern indigenous peoples were the Gaunches of the

Canary Islands. The Gaunches are almost forgotten in American

history, but certainly belong in the introduction to any history

of the invasion of the Americas. When the Spanish (with some

French assistance) first landed on the Canary Islands in 1402,

there was a population of about 80,000 Gaunches. The wars to

conquer them lasted until 1496 when their final stronghold fell.

They were as much victim to the epidemic diseases of Europe as to

the Spanish arms, but they were unquestionably victims. Some

historians have argued that their descendants can be found on the

Canary Islands and the Azores Islands, but the Gaunches are

extinct as a distinct people. The Gaunches, it can be said, had

no rights.

The history of the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands

is a very neat package. It has a beginning, a middle, and, for

all practical purposes, an end. The Portuguese discovered an

uninhabited island they named Madieras because it was covered

with forest. They colonized it with some volunteer settlers. Within

a short time they cleared the island by burning it to the ground and

a few years later were raising enough sugar cane to become the

number one exporter of refined sugar in the world. Money flowed

to the Portuguese crown and a very profitable investment called

*colonization* had been born. Before long it became clear that to

make this investment truly profitable there needed to be a source

of cheap labor. The cheapest labor at the time was slave labor

and that's where the Gaunches came into the picture.

The Gaunches were attacked because they possessed islands

which were thought to be potentially profitable possessions and

because they were a source of slave labor. The attack on the

Gaunches was pure theft and slavery. No one, not even the

Spanish, bothered to explain it in terms of advancing Christianity

or bringing the benefits of Civilization to the benighted. In

that regard the history of the Canary Islands is as refreshingly

blunt as in the fact of their conquest and annihilation was brutal.

Christopher Columbus was married to the daughter of one of

the governors of one of the Azores Islands and is rumored to have

engaged in the slave trade. The Gaunches, as was mentioned

earlier, mostly succumbed to diseases like smallpox and like

indigenous peoples to follow, didn't make satisfactory slaves

because of the death rate. The Spanish quickly adjusted by

importing slaves from Africa where smallpox, chicken pox and a

score of other *childhood* diseases were already known and where

the peoples had developed some immunity to them. A fairly

thorough discussion of the Spanish behavior in these eastern

Atlantic islands is found in Alfred W. Crosby's excellent book,

_Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-

1900_ (1986).

From the Canary Islands and the Azores Columbus set sail for

the Asia mainland and landed, instead, on the islands of the

Caribbean where he encountered, we all know, a people he

mistakenly dubbed Indians. A pattern of behavior which had been

established during the war against the Gaunches was then

initiated by the Spanish against first the peoples of the

Caribbean and then the indigenous peoples of the mainland. The

results were, of course, devastating. On some of the islands, the

entire population was wiped out, or at least virtually wiped out,

by the twin demons of European-introduced epidemic diseases and

Spanish cruelty. A pretty good account of that story is found in

Karl Sauer's _The Early Spanish Main_.

The Indians presented an interesting dilemma when a dispute

between the clergy and the military arose around the identity of

the Indians. Bartolome de Las Casas, a priest, circulated

accounts of Spanish cruelty which were published in Western Europe

and eventually became a source of embarrassment to the Spanish

crown. The crowns then ordered a debate before the Council of the

Indies to settle the question whether the American Indians were

indeed human beings possessed of a soul, and therefore, rightfully

the charges of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, or, as some

conquistadors asserted, sub-humans who had no rights whatever.

The conquistadors hired Gines de Sepulveda as their attorney.

He argued forcefully that Indians are sub-humans. Las Casas

argued they had souls and intelligence and can be socialized to be

servants of both the crown and the church. (The best short

telling of this story is found in _Aristotle and the American

Indian_, by Lewis Hanke.) No one argued the Indians are distinct

peoples possessed of rights against both church and crowns, and no

one questioned to whom the lands belonged. All understood under

the doctrines of that time that the land was Spanish land.

Somewhat consistently with this line of thinking, centuries later

when Spanish colonies became states, most of them included the

indigenous peoples as their citizens immediately, in their first


The English colonization had a slightly different history

from the Spanish in both flavor and on the subject of citizenship.

The English were watching and envious of Spanish success at

plunder in what they called the "New World." English adventures

across the Atlantic had to wait. By 1565, Spain was the most

powerful country on the Atlantic, commanding an empire greater

than Rome at its zenith. When a French colony was attempted in

Florida, the Spanish arrived and massacred everyone.

The English were undaunted. Beginning about 1565,

entrepreneurs sold stock in London to finance a venture to invade

Ireland. The source of wealth in Ireland was to be the forest

products said to be in abundance there, and the lure to some of

England's landless poor (victims of a growing process known as

enclosure) to an adventure in a foreign land. In Ireland, the

English encountered their first indigenous people. The rural

Irish were Catholic, a folk who continued to possess a number of

cultural traits of their ancestors. Before long the invading

English discovered that the indigenes were seriously flawed in

their national character. They were, according to reports flowing

into London, pagans in spirit, probably not Christians at all, and

rumored to be cannibals.

The purpose of these slanders against the Irish was to

provide an excuse to do violence to them in order to drive them

from their lands. One of the complaints against the Irish was

that they do not improve the land as Englishmen do, and therefore,

of not have as much right to it. If the Gaunches were to provide

Spain with practice in their treatment of the Indians of Latin

America, the Irish provided the English with practice in their

treatment of the Indians of North America. An excellent history

is by Nichoas P. Canny, _The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland: A

Pattern Established 1565 -1576_.

The English arrived in what they called New England a

generation or so after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

They immediately proceeded to take the land in a way which was,

at that point, wholly English. Instead of arguing about whether

Indians were human or not, they concentrated on the land itself.

Indians were basically unfortunately in the way of English

possession of the land. Every conceivable excuse was mustered to

dispossess the Indian of this land, excuses which had worked

during the enclosures in England and the wars in Ireland. Acre by

acre the Indians were driven from the land just as the poor in

England had been (and continued to be) and the Irish had been (and

still are). There was not much discussion in this early phase of

history about citizenship, pro or con. An excellent account of

the English in early New England is found in William Cronon's

_Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and Ecology of New


The invasion of North America is told almost entirely from

the eyes of the invader. During the early years, when the English

and Dutch and Swedes and French were weak the Indians insisted

on treaty relationships, on a separation of law and territory. Thus,

the earliest agreements have the air of treaties, and the earliest

treaties reflect Indian thinking about cultural diversity and the

right to continue as distinct peoples. An early treaty is the now-

famous Two Row Treaty between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee

(Iroquois) and the original Silver Covenant Chain, both of which

declare that the relationships are equal to equal or, in modern

terms, state to state.

The Europeans were pragmatists. If treaties served to cement

relations, then treaties were to be made. Although it took nearly

two centuries for the colonies to become established enough to

challenge the Indians, English colonists doggedly coveted the

land. Unlike the Spanish, who coveted Indian labor and

subservience, the English coveted mostly land. There are

exceptions, but generally this was the flow. The Spanish debated

whether the Indians were human. The English simply accepted that

the Indians were not English.

Thus, the Indians were not only not seen as citizens, the

idea never really gained much currency among the colonists that

the Indians would ever by English citizens. The Indians belonged

to America, not to England. America was not England, not its land

and not its people. That ideological underpinning of British

governmental organization and ethnocentrism was to be a major

factor which would stimulate the American Revolution.

Pragmatism ruled the day, however, and the English were

pristinely pragmatic when it came to doing whatever was necessary

to liberate the Indian from land. An excellent account of the

transmigration of European thinking to the Americas, especially

North America, is found in Francis Jennings' _The Invasion of

America -- Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest_.

It has been argued (see Jennings' early trilogy) that the

Seven Years War was the first world war. Jennings argues that the

English crown claimed France had invaded British territory by

building a fort at Duquesne because the land in question was part

of an Iroquois empire, and the Iroquois empire was British

territory. The crown never claims the Iroquois are British

citizens, however. Land and citizenship are clearly separate

under the conditions created by overseas empires and an evolving

theory of law which finds the states coming to ownership of the

idea of citizenship for their own purposes.

At the time of the American Revolution, there is no question

the Americans viewed the Indians as distinct peoples, and that

they, at least, viewed the Indian nations as distinct nations.

Both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the

United States reflect this reality. The new Constitution was

sought and organized primarily to advance imperialism. It was, on

the one hand, a reaction to tax revolts and to organize an

effective army which could deal with issues surrounding what it

euphemistically calls the "western lands." The Western Lands, let

us be clear, was Indian Country. The first major American

military engagements were against Indians by armies invading

Indian nations.

The history of U.S. treatment of Indian nations during the

19th century is long and complicated because of the number of

different Indian peoples involved, but fundamentally simple in

terms of the process which was repeated hundreds of times across

the United States. The U.S. government deployed military

garrisons on the edge of Indian territories and encouraged

frontiersmen to enter and start conflict with the Indians. When

the conflict arose, the army reacted by attacking the Indians.

The best account of this process I know is found in _A History of

the Indians and the Untied States_ by Angie Debo. The Indians

were attacked and killed, enslaved and abused, their land seized

and their children forced into alien schools solely because they

possessed land other people wanted.

The U.S. Constitution treats Indians as non-citizens, and

Indians remained non-citizens until 1924. From the time of

formation of the United States to the present, the issue of

citizenship for Indians has been dealt with by the U.S. government

entirely to its own interest. With the possible exception of

early court decisions, later ignored, that Indian nations were

legitimate in the eyes of the law, the United States has generally

acted as though Indian nationhood is simply an inconvenient

anachronism of history. Indian nationhood is inconvenient

because, if the Indian nations are legitimate, U.S. designs for

Indian land and labor are not legitimate. Thus, U.S. Indian

policy has ignored Indian nationhood whenever possible, even to

the point of simply declaring Indian nations no longer exist

during the Termination Era.

During the nineteenth century, when the problem of how to

steal Indian land without appearing to steal it was a major

consideration, the United States passed laws which enabled non-

Indians to sue Indian nations for damages arising out of acts of

violence during these conflicts, but denied Indians the standing

to sue non-Indians. Indians were clearly non-citizens during this

century and, so long as an Indian continued to maintain his rights

as an Indian, he was considered a non-person in the eyes of U.S.

law. It was possible for an Indian to become a person. He need

only take an allotment of land and renounce his Indian

citizenship. Once a citizen of the United States, an Indian was no

longer considered an incompetent because he was no longer an


The U.S. government even constructed a legal concept that

Indians, as Indians, are incompetent to manage their own affairs

and the federal government has a responsibility to manage their

affairs for them. This insult had the practical application that

it allowed the government to transfer the use of significant

amounts of Indian assets to non-Indian hands. It became the much

vaunted "trust responsibility" theory which some Indian lawyers

seized upon as a way to channel federal dollars to Indians (and

Indian lawyers)during the 1970s and which was put to rest during

the Reagan years. The *trust* responsibility is really an insult.

To benefit from it, Indians are forced to plead diminished

capacity on the basis of race.

Indian nations, on the other hand, have become mystified

about their own legitimacy. Most Indian leaders act unaware that

over the centuries a few states (about 177 at last count) now

claim to own the entire globe. They have a conspiracy among them

that whatever goes on inside the territories they claim is

nobody's business but their own. Thus, Brazil claims as citizens

Indians who have never heard a word of Portuguese and have never

heard of Brazil. Other countries of the world such as Indonesia

and India have been recruited into the scheme of things. Thus

indigenous peoples have no rights in the world because nation

states simply have declared them to be illegitimate and thus have

declared all the theft, murder, dispossession, oppression, cruelty

and coercion directed against indigenous peoples, past and

present, to be legitimate, actions which are wholly the internal

affairs of the state and not a cause for complaint at the

international level.

In addition, citizenship has become the excuse these criminal

states have used to justify their actions. Just as Sepulveda

argued it was acceptable behavior to enslave Indians because

enslavement also brought the benefits of civilization, states

today argue it is acceptable to take Indian land without due

process of law, to deny recognition to an Indian nation as a

nation, and to do whatever it wants, in the name of plenary power

and in the name of international law which effectively bares

Indian nations from bringing actions in international forums for

even the most outrageous crimes. Although the idea of citizenship

may have started as a limitation on the powers of an aristocracy

to seize persons and force them to servitude, by the nineteenth

century the idea of citizenship became solely owned by the states

which were in an international conspiracy to possess the planet at

the expense of all the indigenous peoples.

The question is probably incorrectly drawn when framed around

whether Indians are citizens. The question should not be whether

Indians enjoy the rights under U.S. law, but whether and when

Indians enjoy rights under their Indian nationhood. Indian

nations are denied legitimacy solely because they committed the

crime of owning land somebody else wanted and surviving after the

land was taken. Having failed to physically disappear, the Indian

nation is now urged to disappear legally, culturally, and


The question about citizenship should center around the

rights the Indian nations and citizens (if that's the proper term)

had prior to the colonization and subsequent reservation period.

Certainly Indians enjoyed standing as persons in their

relationships with all peoples prior to that time. Certainly

Indian individuals were viewed as full adults in the eyes of

whatever decision making process they engaged, and even peoples of

different cultures never discriminated against each other in the

fundamental ways Indians suffered discrimination and racism at the

hands of the United States.

The law around Indian citizenship came at a time when the

empires of the world were at their zenith. When the League of

Nations was formed, imperial states were faced with the enormous

problem that they had militarily occupied most of the world's

population, but had not defined membership or nationhood in a

satisfactory way. It became popular to declare that everyone born

in the world is entitled to *citizenship* in some country or

other, an idea embraced by the Wilson administration.

Subsequently, the people of Puerto Rico were granted U.S.

citizenship in 1917. The Indians were even more problematic,

being neither a colony nor a territory from which the United

States had any intention of ever evacuating or withdrawing from

and comprised of peoples who held a potential claim for very large

portions of the claimed U.S. territory.

The obvious answer satisfied both the Indians and the

liberals who wanted to see *better* treatment of the Indians.

Making the Indians citizens opened the road to correcting a long

list of injustices around standing in court and civil rights and

also opened the door to the forced assimilation policy which came

to be known as Termination. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 is

worded in such a way it can be construed to confer on Indians the

*RIGHTS* of U.S. citizenship -- specifically rights against

unlawful seizure, the right to due process, habaeus corpus, to

travel overseas, to be a person in the eyes of the law -- but

does not diminish the Indian's individual rights under his Indian


Those rights are not well defended by the Indian leadership

in recent years, and have not been clearly defined as a political

agenda. International forums have debated the issue with very

little input from the legitimate Indians. Indeed, pretenders have

represented themselves as Indian leadership while the legitimate

Indian leadership stayed home. Indians logically have a right to

all the rights and privileges they enjoyed prior to the armed

robbery which characterizes U.S./Indian relations of the past, and

Indian leadership should move to identify those rights and press

for them. Indian leadership needs to understand that when they

stand as Indians for Indian rights they are in direct conflict

with U.S. aspirations, and that an Indian allegiance to the United

States is secondary to their allegiance to their own nations

because the former by nature seeks to eliminate the latter.


John Mohawk is a leading journalist and founder and former

editor of Akwasasne Notes. He is the author of numerous articles

on the Six Nations Confederacy, government, journalism, economics

and politics. He is a member of the Seneca Nation which is a

member of the Six Nations Confederacy.

Copyright 1983 Center For World Indigenous Studies.


Inventing Thanksgiving
By Brian Awehali / LiP Magazine
From=> November 25, 2002

"On Thanksgiving Day all over America, families sit down to dinner at the same moment – halftime!”
-- Auther Unknown

Every year, as Thanksgiving approaches, I am filled with profound ambivalence. Even as a child, the standard Thanksgiving story always seemed too simple, too wholesome, and too peaceful to be true or truly American. Finally, past the faux-historicism of school textbook-styled Pilgrims and Indians, I was able to delve into the actual construction of the story of Thanksgiving. And, in this way, I learned just how fabricated and utterly bizarre this American "holiday" really is.
In 1621, at Plymouth Plantation on Massachusetts Bay, 50 Pilgrim settlers joined with at least 90 Native guests in a three-day feast which is now traditionally cited as the "First Thanksgiving."
In reality, this seasonal, quasi-secular New England harvest celebration was not repeated in Plymouth and was in fact forgotten until a reference to it was discovered almost 200 years later, in a contemporary book known as "Mourt's Relation."
Contrary to the widely accepted, idyllic account of two cultures sitting down to share a meal in harmony, most 17th-century colonial images relating to Native Americans depict violent confrontation. It was only around 1900, when the western Indian wars had largely subsided due to a shortage of Indians left to kill--and when it was safe for Euroamericans to supplant fear with nostalgia--that the romantic Thanksgiving narrative most Americans today are familiar with took hold.
Thanksgiving Day provides an ideal opportunity to consider the formation of national identity and the concept of a civil religion. It's also a living metaphor of the prevailing American model for immigrant assimilation and the ways in which history can be reinterpreted, and indeed wholly reinvented, to serve competing ethnic, patriotic, religious, and commercial ends.
A Host of Victory Thanksgivings
An overview of historical documents reveals the many uses to which various thanksgivings have been put. The Continental Congress declared the first national day of thanksgiving on November 1, 1777, to celebrate an American victory over British general John Burgoyne:
Forasmuch as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such further Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defence and Establishment of our inalienable Rights and Liberties... It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for the Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one voice, the good People may express themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor.
Did such a weighty declaration to the Divine Benefactor cement the basic contours of the holiday? Hardly. Then as now, political struggles (electoral and military) were often interpreted as theaters for the enactment of divine will, and so victories great and small led to a rush of thanksgiving declarations. The Confederate Congress proclaimed separate thanksgiving observations in July 1861 and again in September 1862, after the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. And it wasn't just the South. President Lincoln similarly set aside days of thanksgiving in April 1862 and August 1863 to commemorate the important Union victories at Shiloh and Gettysburg. These ad hoc decrees fell in some cases on Sundays (a common day for religious observance) and in other cases on Thursdays. Lincoln declared yet another Thanksgiving Day in 1863, for the last Thursday in November--and it has been celebrated annually in late November ever since. In his proclamation he drew attention to affairs both national and international:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
It was not until 1931, when President Herbert Hoover made his proclamation, that any of the presidential declarations of thanksgiving mentioned the Plymouth Pilgrims and the 1621 harvest festival as a precursor to the modern holiday. By this time, yet another willfully amnesiac reinvention of Thanksgiving was under way.
Industrialization, Commercialization, Assimilation
The general anxieties of the 1920s and 1930s provide telling insights into the creation of Thanksgiving Day as it is generally practiced and taught in the present-day United States. Elizabeth Pleck, writing in the Journal of Social History, asks why it's historically important that "domestic occasions" like Thanksgiving be old-fashioned:
Thanksgiving eased the social dislocations of the industrial and commercial revolutions... The growth of commerce, industry, and urban life created a radical break between past and present, a gap that could be bridged by threshold reunions at the family manse. Nostalgia at Thanksgiving was a yearning for a simpler, more virtuous, more public-spirited and wholesome past, located in the countryside, not the city. In gaining wealth, the family and nation, it was believed, had lost its sense of spiritual mission. Perhaps celebrating one special day might help restore the religious morality of an earlier generation.
In the aftermath of World War I, at a time when many Americans were concerned both with preserving and promoting (in Pleck's words) a "close-knit, religiously inspired [Protestant] community," and, not coincidentally, with the "Americanization" of Northern and Eastern European immigrants, Thanksgiving Day provided a compelling occasion for emphasizing civil religion, the quasi-religious belief in national institutions, purposes, and destiny. Furthermore, the model of the Pilgrim as the archetypal "good" immigrant, peacefully coexisting in prosperity with other ethnic communities, proved all but irresistible. The ideal of the "melting pot" in the United States -- often less about relishing a diverse mix of ethnic elements than about reducing ethnic culture to an assimilated national identity -- also exerted a powerful influence. By the time of Hoover's 1931 proclamation, the codification of Thanksgiving as the fundamental American holiday was essentially complete.
Which is not to say that Americans were done tinkering. One noteworthy and almost quintessentially American reformulation was ushered in by the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. This commercial pageant began in 1924 as the Macy's Christmas Parade because, as Elizabeth Pleck observes, "The department store wanted to stage a parade as a prelude to the Christmas shopping season." Pleck also notes that even in the 1920s, the parade did not exist in the shadow of the family feast or the church service, but in very real competition with another Thanksgiving tradition: the afternoon football game.
Football was clearly the more significant of the two forms of out-of-home entertainment, as changes in the timing of Macy's parade in the 1920s indicate. Initially, Macy's parade offended patriotic groups, who decried a spectacle on "a national and essentially religious holiday." Macy's hired a public relations man, who decided the critics could be placated if the parade in the morning was postponed until at least after church services had ended. The parade, pushed to the afternoon, began at the same time as the kickoff for most football games. Customers and football fans complained. By the late 1920s, Macy's had returned to an early morning parade, presumably so as not to compete with afternoon football games.
The parade featured different groups of immigrants demonstrating their American cultural fluency with floats that echoed and reinforced the core Thanksgiving origin myth. At about the same time, schoolchildren were being exposed to similar ideas about celebration, national history, customs, and cultural symbols, all of which came together to form the narrative that persists more or less intact to this day.
Lies, Half-Truths, and What a Nation Will Tell Itself
Perhaps, given the patent falsehood of the Story of Thanksgiving, one of the better questions to ask as the holiday approaches is what, in fact, it really stands for. As a Cherokee, I have never felt much like celebrating an event that essentially commemorates one of several stages in the genocide of Native Americans by European settlers, a process which continues to this day in the form of environmental racism, structural poverty, and lack of educational resources. There were times, to be sure, when I appreciated sitting with my family and devouring an embarrassment of culinary riches. But those I hold separate from the holiday itself.
For me, this now agreed upon Thanksgiving symbolizes first and foremost the alarmingly subjective nature of history, which, as Howard Zinn reminds us, is almost always written by the winners. It symbolizes the triumph of football over religion, and of American commercialism over virtually everything standing in its wasteful path. And perhaps most importantly, it symbolizes the lies and half-truths on which a profoundly diverse country must depend in order to prop up the specious concept of a broadly shared civil religion or national identity.
Thanksgiving, then, symbolizes that there is still great work to be done before a nation that readily prides itself in its goodness, honesty, and wholesome relationship with Divine Grace will actually resemble the stories it tells itself.

Brian Awehali is the publisher and co-editor of LiP Magazine.