The US holiday Thanksgiving is coming up later this week. Ever curious to learn more about how history, tradition and myth mix to create our reality I did what I often do at this time of year, I looked up the history of Thanksgiving.
Even as a kid I sensed the story behind Thanksgiving had to be more complicated than how it was generally presented. I don’t really know why, maybe but it was because growing up, around the camp fire, my father told stories about the places we visited and sometimes the Native Americans were the heroes or protagonists of theses stories, though usually it was stereotypical narratives of the “good settlers” versus the “bad Indians”.
I wondered, well if I am here, a person descended from these European settlers (or invaders depending on the point of view) where are the Native Americans now? All around the region where I grew up, lots of place names are of indigenous origin: Susquehanna, Cayuga, Oswego. On some level there is a presence of the native people but they were never talked about as a contemporary community and limited to caricature-like images.
Over the years questions about original peoples have built up and lucky for me, no matter that I live an ocean apart from my place of birth the Internet makes research so easy.
“The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” — James W. Loewen in Plagues & Pilgrims: The Truth about the First Thanksgiving
For readers who don’t know, the US Thanksgiving story most commonly taught in schools is that a group of European settlers arrived in what we now call the United States of America. They had a hard time learning how to farm and live in the new territory. The Native Americans helped to provide for them, teaching them how to grow food. They celebrated the first harvest with a thanksgiving meal.
original people’s history and traditions
Thanksgiving told this way leaves out painful truths about the nation’s history, about both before and after the settlers who arrived in 1620. Further it completely ignores the 12,000 years of history and tradition of the original peoples in the territory. For example, who hasn’t heard of Christopher Colmbus? Yet think: can you also name any of the original peoples, whose lives this lost-at-sea expedition touched, upset and destroyed? Bonus points if you can name the communities as they would call themselves. Not the names designated by the colonizers, for example “Iroquois” imposed on the “Haudenosauenee“
To add insult to injury the concept of thanksgiving was not an invention of the Europeans. For original peoples, every day is a day of thanksgiving and autumn harvest festivals are common across cultures.
This article from the Smithsonian Magazine, Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving tells a fuller story. Well, “do they, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ celebrate Thanksgiving?” you wonder? I urge you to read the article. The comments from readers at the end is wonderful and touching read. There is no simple yes or no answer, and the article tries to, if not untangle the complexity of Thanksgiving, at least lay it all out to see.
Another Smithsonian article, “The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue” shed some interesting light on the how Thanksgiving has been used in the last 200 years to shape a narrative of white, Protestant cultural dominance.
Following the Civil War Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a holiday to foster unity. Then a few decades later, white Protestants crafted the story to exert their superiority.
“[Thanksgiving] gained purchase in the late 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of anxiety and agitation over immigration. The white Protestant stock of the United States was widely unhappy about the influx of European Catholics and Jews, and wanted to assert its cultural authority over these newcomers. How better to do that than to create this national founding myth around the Pilgrims and the Indians inviting them to take over the land?”
myth and reality
And so the Thanksgiving myth that had been born some years before now grew legs and walked off into a sunset of gentle and bloodless colonialism. US Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it and new comers could prove their loyalty and “Americanness” by taking part.
It’s understandable. We humans don’t like to look at unpleasantness in the past or present but until we need to learn to deal with our collective historical trauma differently, it will stay with us. It will cause hurt within families, in our communities and beyond.
I have been worried about the direction of the United States for a while now. How, or whether at all, civil society would continue to mature and become more aware of the collective nature of life? It is a country founded on the myth of the self-sufficient individual, which just isn’t reality. We are all connected and we all need each other.
During the past years the country has been severely polarized and continues to be. But no matter I say. Doing this sort of work, inquiring and reconciling the past, can start at any time and wherever you’re at. That’s the perfect time and place.
It has been a difficult year, I hope you find some way, whether that’s your usual Thanksgiving celebration, daily gratitude practice or slowing down to take stock as winter arrives in the northern hemisphere, to celebrate the blessings of the year and send positive energy to those who need it.
It’s time for us all to be in the one world as one. History is not our fault but it is our responsibility. I hope you carry away something new from this post and share it with someone else. Thank you for reading and see you soon.
want to know more?
“Everyone’s history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known” gives the backstory to conditions in the region before the European settlers arrived. (And can you believe it? Another Smithsonian Magazine article.)
Misrepresentation of Native communities is still widely accepted in the United States — Jordan Klepper report from Comedy Central (video)
Why Native Representation and Mascots Matter – Crystal Echo Hawk from the Indigenous Activism Speaker Series (video)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann re-examines the popular beliefs that the so called new world was a sparsely populated, pristine wilderness. (book)
And again, the invitation to sign the petition. And while you’re here, two more things. Another excellent campaign and a movie recommendation.
Why we wear red campaign to end violence against Native women.
Smoke Signals a touching contemporary story about two young men’s struggle to overcome conflicting childhood difficulties.
Go in power and see you soon.