No thanks: A little historical truth-telling about Thanksgiving

The historical narrative that surrounds the American Thanksgiving feast is fairly recent.

The purportedly idyllic partnership between the European Pilgrims and New England Indians is actually only about 120 years old. After WWI, the story that we learn in school today became THE story. I believe deeply in the power of re-appropriating racist and sexist traditions, but I do not believe that we can effectively do that if we do not know the history of what we’re re-appropriating. So, today I’m sharing some links that I’ve used as resources over the years that have helped me understand the holiday, the story and get a little closer to the truth. We know that victors write history books, but we also know it’s our job to correct and re-write them.

From an article by Richard Greener in the Huffington Post last year:

“The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women and children – all murdered.

This day is still remembered today, 373 years later. No, it’s been long forgotten by white people, by European Christians. But it is still fresh in the mind of many Indians. A group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the long gone Pequot. They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football game afterward.”

From a very moving and powerful article in AlterNet, by Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux:

To the Pilgrims, and most English and European peoples, the Wampanoags were heathens, and of the Devil. They saw Squanto not as an equal but as an instrument of their God to help his chosen people, themselves. Since that initial sharing, Native American food has spread around the world. Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples.

I sometimes wonder what they ate in Europe before they met us. Spaghetti without tomatoes? Meat and potatoes without potatoes? And at the “first Thanksgiving” the Wampanoags provided most of the food — and signed a treaty granting Pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth, the real reason for the first Thanksgiving. What did the Europeans give in return? Within 20 years European disease and treachery had decimated the Wampanoags. Most diseases then came from animals that Europeans had domesticated. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, one of the great killers of our people, spread through gifts of blankets used by infected Europeans. Some estimate that diseases accounted for a death toll reaching 90 percent in some Native American communities.”

And from an article in AlterNet by Robert Jensen, some great forward looking analysis:

“How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here’s how “respectable” politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations’ lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who “settled” the country — and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable — such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States — suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, “Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?”

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class — one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn’t of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action….

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.”

I highly recommend reading all of these, in their full form. But from these excerpts,  you get a sense of what’s at stake here. Please share other links and resources in the comments. History is power, and by reasserting our commitment to knowing our own histories we can begin a much needed conversation about the legacy of this nation. So, by all means give thanks tomorrow. Give thanks for all the good things in your lives, I know I will. But I’ll also be sure not to miss the chance to speak out loud some truth, some history.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Friends like to talk about the more humane, fairer dealings among Quaker William Penn and the Native Peoples. Penn was a nobleman, and one well connected with the King of what would soon be called Great Britain. Because of this, Penn was granted a huge tract of land as a favor. It became known as the colony of Pennsylvania. (Literal translation: Penn’s woodlands) We may romanticize it, but the truth is somewhere in between laudable and simply less offensive.

    http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/penn/pnind.html

    • Posted November 25, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Hey, everyone! Let’s take time out from remembering the slaughter of millions of Native Americans and turn the focus instead on some rich, dead, White guy.

  2. Posted November 28, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I’m all for history is power, and Keeler’s article in particular is very powerful, but that Greener piece is painful. The first Thanksgiving by the colonists isn’t the one he cites, he positions that massacre as a random act rather than part of a war (which doesn’t make it much better, but historical context is important). Let alone the fact that Thanksgiving as religious observance and harvest festival as general observance both predate Europeans crossing the ocean in general. It’s really just a completely ahistorical piece. The genocide of First Nations is an ugly truth of history that has been whitewashed in many ways, but inventing a new false history isn’t going to accomplish anything.

  3. Posted November 29, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Great compilation article, but why did you thoughtfully choose to use “New England Indians” over Native Americans?

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