It’s Thanksgiving once again: that day, every year, when we are all gluttonous to celebrate the fact that ‘Pilgrims and Indians’ had a harmonious meal — at least that is how it has been framed historically.
On the last Thursday of November, every year, we celebrate the beginning of a European invasion that ends with the death or relocation of millions of native people. While many have tried to redefine the meaning of Thanksgiving into a time wherein we cultivate a sense of gratitude, the undeniable truth is that the blood of native people stains the genesis of the holiday.
I, too, have had mixed feelings of this holiday, which have changed many times over my life thus far. I, too, have made my efforts to evolve the holiday into a time of gratitude for loved ones, for the many things that those and other people have given to me or done for me, and sometimes just getting through the chores of the holiday has made me want to just disappear. It’s not always an easy, fun, or enjoyable day.
Thanksgiving can be a time of cultivating a sense of gratitude; but for that fact, shouldn’t every day be that day? I think so.
I would like to see us all enjoy a nice meal together, share memories, and be grateful for what we have … and remember it is all a very thin line, just as life is itself. We should indeed be grateful and thankful to our Higher Power, God, or Allah, or whomever and whatever we choose to name that spiritual being. We should indeed celebrate that.
However, there is more to the story of Thanksgiving than most everyone – myself included – ever knew, so I did some research, and following is a brief narrative, mostly plagiarized from several sources, in order to understand this holiday and perhaps take another look at it, understanding that what is a holiday for some may not be a holiday for others for many reasons.
The colonial origins of Thanksgiving – or what many natives often refer to as Thankskilling or Thankstaking – is not something to celebrate. While we cannot pinpoint one specific or original “Thanksgiving” celebration, President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863 and conceived it as a national day of thanksgiving. “Pilgrims and Indians” weren’t included in the tradition until 1890. The national mythos surrounding this holiday does not take into consideration the long and violent history of contact between European settlers (in this case English pilgrims – puritans) and indigenous populations that already inhabited the land. It is in these forgotten histories that we see the history of this holiday for what it truly is: English pilgrims, unprepared to survive on the land and unfamiliar with the vegetation, waterways, and others food sources, stranded on Turtle Island who survive those early winters and ultimately engage in a brutal campaign of colonialism and genocidal activity.
It is important that we think clearly and honestly about how the pilgrims saw the natives. Five time Plymouth County Governor William Bradford said the natives were “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.” Clearly not the people you would like to feast with, yet our national narrative surrounding this holiday celebrates the first Thanksgiving as a moment of harmonious bridge building. This is clearly not the case. Especially when we learn about the Pequot Massacre of 1637. This is just one in a multitude of genocidal tactics employed against the indigenous peoples of this land since white Europeans arrived in 1492. Of this event, Governor Bradford said, “Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”
The occupiers celebrated the genocide — and thanked God for the victory. Immediately following the Pequot Massacre of 1637, the occupiers worked diligently to whitewash history. The name of the tribe was erased from the map. The Pequot River became the Thames, and the geographic space the Pequot inhabited became known as New London. It is as if they never existed.
The whitewashing and erasure of indigenous histories is not unique to this holiday, but it is, perhaps, one of the most ironic instances of indigenous mass murder in service of white European colonial expansion. The idea that we celebrate the notion that indigenous peoples and the white European occupiers who literally sought their extinction were able to put their differences to the side long enough to sit down and feast upon food, in relative peace and harmony, is deeply problematic. Even more so is the idea that it was the white European occupiers who had to teach and demonstrate “civility” to these “barbarous savages.” With the Pequot massacre in mind, it is clear which group in the Thanksgiving picture were the real “barbarous savages” and who were the ones practicing civility.
Yes, it is humbling- even disturbing – to learn of this story and admit that some of our ancestors were a part of this. It is not meant to dampen our collective spirits or squash a celebratory atmosphere, for the history of mankind is full of stories like this one.
I ask that each of you practice compassion and live with an attitude of gratitude for everything and everyone in your life, and that you make choices mindfully.
Every day be thankful, including today, when we pause for just a few moments, amidst the chaos and busy-ness of our lives, to be with those closest in our lives, and show the love and kindness we all deserve.