Finding perspective on our joyous holiday, built on a twisted history.
Thanksgiving in my experience, has been awesome. I look forward to it every year; the amazing food, family all in one place and the warm, fuzzy feelings are a wonderful combination.
Though in recent years, it’s also been a time filled with dissonance, as I come to recognize the reality of what this festive occasion is built on. Thanksgiving today is predicated on a beautiful intention of getting together and being grateful for what we have in our life. While it also celebrates a day that marks the beginning of a genocide of an entire race of people and culture.
It’s kind of a tough thing to reconcile. I’m not here to rain on anyone’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, but if Thanksgiving truly is a day about being thankful, then we should be a little more conscious as to who and what made this possible for us and be responsible in our practice.
We tell ourselves and our children the rosy story of how the Pilgrims and Native Americans had a lovely dinner together. But that just reinforces our country’s tendency to whitewash history and paper over the grim realities of what it took to bring us the privileges we enjoy.
The story we know basically goes like this,
- The Pilgrims sailed to Plymouth Rock seeking religious freedom.
- The super nice and helpful Native Americans, taught them how to farm b/c the Pilgrims didn’t know shit.
- They grew a bunch of food and had a big feast together and were best friends.
What Actually Happened?
The real story of what happened years ago, is still being debated and it’s hard to find a clear story, but it sure as hell is not the story we learned in school. And I guarantee it is not Disney movie appropriate.
“Adam Ruins Everything, Reanimated History” has a great little segment on their knowledge of what happened during the “First Thanksgiving.” On TruTV.
To be honest, I researched it a good amount and found a lot of contradicting information about how the events played out, but I can assure you none of it was particularly pleasant or noble on the Pilgrims’ behalf.
There are some things though that we do know.
First, the Pilgrims were not the first ones to reach the “New World.” The Europeans had been trading with the Native Americans for 100 years. They never settled because the land was already occupied! The Pilgrims were only able to settle on the Wampanoag land, after their tribe was decimated by disease, brought by you know who.
Second, they were not necessarily seeking religious freedom, they already had religious freedom in Holland. They came to to establish a religious theocracy (boy, did they ever) and make money on new fishing/trade routes. Kind of the opposite of religious freedom and not very well intentioned to the Natives.
Some sources indicate that the Pilgrims, who were actually referred to in their day as separatists, and the Wampanoag, whom we generically refer to as “Native Americans” may, or may not have actually feasted together. And if they did, it was most likely to celebrate a massacre of an entire tribe, called the Pequot (seen in image).
We also don’t even know if they ate TURKEY. “Adam Ruins Everything” says they did, while the NY Times says there is no evidence. The 46 million turkeys killed every year might be annihilated over a misconception. (I’m gonna eat a lil turkey this year, BUT I”M NOT GONNA FEEL GOOD ABOUT IT.)
This little guy might have gotten it the worst of all.
Regardless of the timeline of what happened during that period of time, we know that the events following were truly horrendous. The murder, enslavement and obliteration of the Native Americans is our shameful backstory as North Americans, that we must continue to acknowledge as we move forward.
Am I saying we need to all feel guilty about it, even though none of us were alive then? Of course not, but we need to recognize where we came from, how we got here and respect the consequences of our history that shape our lives today. The same way The Holocaust is mandatorily taught to every child in Germany, we have to know our history or we are doomed to repeat it.
Many indigenous people responded to Thanksgiving, in their observance of a day they call their “National Day of Mourning.” A cruel irony compared to how the rest of us spend the day gorging ourselves and reflecting on how happy we are to have the blessings in our lives.
It must be hard as an indigenous Native American today, to see young children dressing up in Pilgrim costumes and inaccurate Native headdresses, reenacting characters in the story of the decimation of their people.
While acknowledging our past, me must understand that these issues are not solely matters of the past, as they still persist today. Indigenous populations are large in the U.S. today, over 6.9 million, and they face higher rates of frequent distress, the highest rates of suicide and require the most treatment for alcoholism of any other ethnic group.
They continue to have land taken from them, like what happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) that was planned to be built at top Mount Mauna Kea, a sacred space for Native Hawaiians.
When we disregard our history, we not only disrespect those people who were wronged in the past but we continue to hurt those existing in our PRESENT. When we act ignorantly and carelessly without concern to other experiences, we ultimately degrade ourselves as a culture and leave space for more hatred and violence to breed within our society. This isn’t meant to be a massive guilt trip but a realistic acceptance of what we as a people are built on.
My friend and his family, derive from indigenous tribes in New Mexico and celebrate Thanksgiving every year at the Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island, which aims to honor indigenous people and promote their rights. Its popularity grows every year.
Thanksgiving can be a beautiful thing. Giving thanks, being together and appreciating what we have is the most genuine inspiration for a holiday that you can ask for. We can keep that spirit alive, by including everybody and remembering all the stories that took place, that allowed us to sit down together and enjoy our delicious meal. And maybe consider adding a veggie substitute in your feast next year 😉
From the bottom of my heart, I wish you all a warm, safe and happy holiday. Thank you for reading.