You know the story of the first Thanksgiving. You probably acted it out in school–maybe more than once–complete with Pilgrim hats and feathered headdresses. It is immortalized on your serving plates, your seasonal decorations, and your holiday sale catalogs. However, like many origin stories, what you were taught about Thanksgiving as children–what we all were taught and what our kids are still being taught–is a myth.
Google tells me that a myth is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events” or “a widely held but false belief or idea” or “a misrepresentation of the truth.” The Thanksgiving story is all three.
As a child taking piano lessons, I learned to play a song about the first Thanksgiving. Set to the tune of “We Gather Together,” its simple lyrics gave the impression that the annual celebration began in 1620 and has continued uninterrupted ever since. But the story of that original feast did not begin to circulate until 1848. And it was not until the Lincoln Administration that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Please read the linked article for the full details.
I know that people who are reading this are going to feel uncomfortable. They are going to resist this knowledge. I have felt this discomfort myself. Why? The answer lies in the message of the Thanksgiving story. What do we like about this myth and why do we cling to it?
Obviously, the narrative of settlers and natives dining peacefully together, enjoying the fruits of their mutual labors, is a more attractive story than the real one–that settlers stole land from the people who were already here, infected them with diseases–sometimes on purpose–and systematically attempted to exterminate them and obliterate their cultures. That is what happened and it does not translate nicely into kindergarten plays and turkey platters.
It is tempting to think that since this happened a long time ago it has nothing to do with us. But that is taking the coward’s way out. Indigenous people are still here. We continue to do violence to them and to their cultures when we perpetuate this false narrative, when we splash “Pilgrim and Indian” imagery all over social media, when we fail to attempt to right the wrongs done by our ancestors from which we benefit today.
Setting aside a day to be thankful for our blessings, to gather with family to enjoy a meal–those are good things. We can throw out the origin story without throwing out the celebration. And we also need to reckon with history. Start by clicking here. Enter your address and find out whose land you live on. Learn about these people. What happened to them? Where are they now? Is there any way you can support them?
Consider making an annual donation to the Mashpee Wamapanoag Tribe. These are the natives who attended that mythical Thanksgiving feast, who did indeed help the Pilgrims to survive. Look here for the sequel.
Find some books to read and some Indigenous folks to follow on Facebook. Listen, learn, educate yourself. Be open to some new ideas. I will be reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States in the coming year. I was blessed to read Braiding Sweetgrass this year–everyone should read it! And I have learned so much from the native people I follow online that motivated me to write this post.
Finally, when you gather on Thursday, when you thank God for your blessings, remember to pray for the original inhabitants of this country. They are still here.