The following salute was given at the Thanksgiving Day celebration in honor of Native Americans held on Nov. 24, 2010 at New Freeway Hall in Seattle, WA. The speaker was Anne Guerry Hoddersen, National Chair of the Freedom Socialist Party.
We all know that Columbus and the Pilgrims got everything wrong when they landed on these shores and that quite a bit of racist propaganda surrounds Thanksgiving. Columbus didn’t land in India and the people of this hemisphere were not godless folk in need of the “blessings” of conquest: Catholicism, slavery, the Inquisition, witch-burnings, genocide, rape, etc.
Farmers, inventors, scientists. In fact, the indigenous people of this hemisphere were 30 million strong and born of a race of brilliant scientists and astronomers, architects and builders. They were orators, poets, farmers, fishers, weavers, jewelry-makers, creators of political institutions and social orders that lasted hundreds or thousands of years. They created the League of the Iroquois which Ben Franklin and others at the constitutional convention looked to as a model of democracy that could bring together the colonies into a federated whole. They invented countless herbal medicines, domesticated animals and cultivated thousands of varieties of plants.
A world rescued. At the time of the conquest, the indigenous people cultivated over 300 food crops which today are the basis of three-fifths of what is eaten on our planet.
This is a most relevant fact to remember at Thanksgiving. When Columbus erroneously arrived here, the rest of the world was plagued by regular famines because the crops they depended on — grains in Europe, rice in Asia, and sorghum and millet in Africa — were vulnerable to bad weather, birds, and insects.
Luckily for the poor and underfed peasants of the rest of the world, the Incas had developed 3,000 varieties of potatoes over 4,000 years. They had a variety for every growing condition in Europe, Africa and Asia.
If you think about it, this is a very personal piece of information, since most of us are probably descended from peasants and wouldn’t be sitting here without the Incas humble, homely potato which ended famines caused by crop failures.
Potatoes, corn and beans were miracle crops. They could be grown in any soil, required no milling, and on a regular basis provided more food, more nutrition and with less labor than any grain.
In short, Native Americans revolutionized the world. Crops and spices grown in our hemisphere were spread around the globe. Slave traders brought back foods and spices from our hemisphere to Africa. Spanish ships sailing from Acapulco to Manila, a Spanish colony, spread them to Asia. The Portuguese brought them from Brazil to their colonies in Africa, India and Southern China. Lucky for the Chinese, the humble sweet potato yields three to four times more food on the same amount of land as rice.
Native Americans didn’t just create new varieties of food, they developed the technology for processing plants and animals by drying, grinding, adding lime or ashes, using acid to soften and preserve meat, tapping maple trees for syrup. Plains tribes even figured out how to extract oil from sunflower seeds. Mayans learned to produce chocolate from the cacao bean and Aztecs discovered vanilla in an orchid fruit that required months of heat and humidity to produce a wonderful aroma.
We can thank the Native Americans for all this! But words, once a year are not enough.
Today multinational corporations search the globe for new plants to patent and sell and for natural resources to exploit. In the process they are destroying the biological diversity upon which we all depend. Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of this war against the new conquistadors of “free trade” and we must be there with them.
A debt owed. While pushing indigenous farmers in Mexico off their land and onto the road in search of work in the U.S. as undocumented workers, these corporate conquistadors have the nerve to try and privatize the botanical legacy of indigenous people and criminalize them for not having documents. It is an outrage. We are the recipients of so much from Native Americans — a land; the means to survive; proof that human society can exist on a cooperative basis — not on exploitation and profit; that society can be built around respect for women, children and elders; that life is sharing plenty instead of hoarding it, of giving instead of selling.
The Quechua people of Bolivia do not have an equivalent of the English phrase “thank you” since their culture teaches that sharing is a requirement of life and that gratitude can only be shown in deeds not in words.
So while we share this wonderful food today let’s remember to show our gratitude in deeds of solidarity, kindness, respect and giving to our working class sisters and brothers of all colors, but especially to the people on whose land we are standing.
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