The Dark Underside of Thanksgiving

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans       Thanksgiving is a great holiday in North America, celebrated in both Canada and the United States.  Families and friends come together.  Food seems everywhere. Often turkey or ham sandwiches are stretched out until the end of the year.  It’s less religious than Christmas, but perhaps more sentimental.  Facebook sent me pictures of family gatherings at our house in New Orleans over several years this week.  It was both joyous and heart rending to see all of us together on one hand and to think of those gone on the other.

Then there’s the Thanksgiving backstory and the Pilgrim and Indian myth that enshrouds some of the tradition, and that’s worth remembering, sharing, and then storing in a separate place in the mind so that it doesn’t interfere with the contemporary benefits the holiday brings.  As Philip Deloria wrote in the New Yorker in a piece called “The Invention of Thanksgiving,” the real deal was marked by genocide, greed, bad faith, and an interest in creating a cover story for Jim Crow apologists for the seaming side of American history.

You didn’t just invite Debbie Downer to Thanksgiving.  I’ve already acknowledged it’s a fantastic holiday despite the warped myths and hyper marketing.  Nonetheless, this children’s tale of happy Indians and sanctified Pilgrims is little more than hogwash as numerous historians are increasingly documenting.

As Deloria documents, the Wampanoag Indian tribe had a mutual defense pact with the fledgling colony.  They weren’t invited to some celebration, they showed up ninety-strong thinking they were fulfilling their obligation under their agreement because gunshots had been heard in the colony.  The Pilgrims thought they might have been under attack by the Wampanoag.  They sorted it out and the Wampanoag stayed for three days.

In future years the Pilgrims celebrated thanksgivings often after bloody victories over the Native people.  They liked putting their victims’ heads on pikes for display in the villages.  They sold Indians as slaves and made them indentured servants.  Just the facts, Jack.

Two centuries later, as Deloria notes,

“In 1841, The Reverend Alexander Young explicitly linked three things:  the 1621 “rejoicing,” the tradition of autumnal harvest festivals, and the name Thanksgiving.  He did so in a four-lien throwaway gesture and a one-line footnote….A couple of decades later, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, proposed a day of unit and remembrance to counter the trauma of the Civil War, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be that national holiday, following Young’s lead in calling it Thanksgiving….Fretting over late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century immigration, American mythmakers discovered that the Pilgrims, and New England as a whole, were perfectly cast as national founders:  white, Protestant, democratic, and blessed with an American character centered on family, work, individualism, freedom, and faith.  The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West …. Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of American slavery.”

As we sit around the table and count her blessings and feel the warm glow of our families, it’s worth remembering that there are still debts owed and dues to pay.