Thanksgiving is one of our oldest national holidays, and is purely American in its origins. Ostensibly, we are honoring the European settlers who managed to carve out a living in a strange and not altogether hospitable new land. They began this holiday themselves, to rejoice at their good fortune for staying alive against the odds. Legend tells us that they enjoyed their feast with members of a local native Indian tribe, who had helped them survive by teaching them about their new world. It was a bountiful feast, filled with camaraderie and laughter and food. At least that’s the version we learn as children.

The first feast was such a success that it became an annual event, and eventually a national holiday. Today it is celebrated with a feast of similar proportions, a gathering of family and friends, and even some actual thankfulness at our own state of fortune.

Sadly, those early collaborations between the native people and the newcomers did not last. When they first arrived and began to die off at alarming rates, the colonists accepted the help of the natives knowing that to not do so would mean failure and death. They wanted to succeed, so despite their feelings of superiority over the “primitive” Indians, the colonists found some humility and paid attention. But once they learned how to manipulate their new lands, and learned about native animals and plants from the Indian people, the colonists reverted to their natural state of superiority and the spirit of that first Thanksgiving faded fast.

The centuries that followed turned ugly for Native American populations. White settlers drove them from traditional hunting and living grounds. White settlers changed the landscape to suit themselves, without regard for the natural cycle that nourished the Indian way of life for thousands of years. White settlers tried to force their religion and their lifestyle on the native people, who couldn’t understand the point and didn’t want to emulate these strange ways. White settlers eventually declared open war on all Native Americans, killing entire tribes and forcing the rest into lives of squalor and poverty on reservations. The conquest of America was an absolute success for the European settlers. We remember their success with Thanksgiving. The conquest of America was an absolute disaster for Native Americans. We have yet to own up to that.

American Indians are among the poorest people in America. Those who have managed to hold on to their tribal status and have secured land for themselves through the reservation system are in better condition than those whose tribes were officially disbanded by the federal government. Decades of corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs have rendered that department useless in solving any lingering animosity or debauchery on the part of the government and their corporate benefactors. Even as some tribes reclaim a chance at prosperity through casino and hotel establishments, the vast majority of native people live apart from the modern world. Their reality is a legacy to the deliberate actions of all American administrations from the beginning to today. Those actions include displacement, imprisonment, malnourishment, abandonment and genocide. We celebrate Thanksgiving and its tacit acceptance of how we came to rule this land. What do the Indians celebrate?

History can’t be undone, and reparations are not always the answer to every historical wrong. Sometimes, the only choice is to acknowledge what has happened and agree to move forward together. Even today as reservation councils make efforts to modernize their homes and towns, a spirit of adversity permeates relations between white descendants and Native Americans. Rightly wary of all government promises or negotiations, Indian tribes are increasing their separation as a people even as they lure whites to their casinos. The result is a continuation of their own poverty and an exacerbation of our own reticence to change the status quo.

The answer to reconciliation is one that requires an honest effort to put aside the wrongs committed in the past, compensating more fairly for some of those transgressions, accepting responsibility for the rest. Both cultures exacted harsh punishments on the other, but the Indians certainly got the worst end of the deal. Strangely though, as our species outgrows the resources of the world, we may actually benefit from a resumption of the original relationship between Native Americans and the colonists. The truth is that when we work together without trying to conquer each other we all flourish.

There may be more important issues happening in the world today than the state of American-Indian affairs. We suffer from a federal government that is at war with its own citizens as well as with other nations. We live in the shadow of a murky enemy who wants to destroy the freedom of our democracy. We wither under the weight of our own apathy as we watch our way of life grow more uncertain. Welcome to the world of the American Indian, who has lived with these problems for far too long. So while other issues are more pressing or urgent or vocal, it is never to soon to repair the rift between white America and Native Americans.

Maybe, if we really set our minds to it, we can soon celebrate a Thanksgiving that actually resembles the first one- a feast among friends who have worked together to stave off failure and death. It is time for a gathering of all Americans, regardless of ancestry.