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Thinking About Thanks

Opinion | November 20, 2011

Leslie McCracken

As a non-American who recently moved to America, my first impression of Thanksgiving was certainly positive—a time when American families of all religious and historical backgrounds gather to give thanks. Right?

But thanks for what? Is that even clear? The problem I first found with the holiday is that not everyone’s families are united.  Race and historical background do matter, especially for Native Americans.

From an Anglo-Saxon perspective, Thanksgiving is a time when happiness and unity fill every American home. The mainstream media touts Thanksgiving as a time to warmly gather with extended family and give thanks for the values upon which America was founded. Who would be bitter enough to hate on Thanksgiving?

As someone who has never celebrated this holiday, it is easier to step back from this commercialized view. So many college students around me seem to have forgotten why they get three days off from school. They seem oblivious to the fact that there is more behind the holiday than a dinner feast and Black Friday shopping.

Thanksgiving has shifted from being a day of historical remembrance about the true beginnings of America to a commercialized day celebrated without genuine historical knowledge of what is being commemorated.

Even those aware of the history behind the holiday have probably heard only part of the historical truth: a story about how the Wampanoag Indians helped the Puritans through their first winter in America, and how the two groups happily celebrated their first corn harvest with a celebratory feast. Who hasn’t heard that story?

But this version of the Thanksgiving story implies that an equal and peaceful relationship between the Native Americans and the English existed, when it actually never did. The realistic, historically accurate account behind the Thanksgiving tradition—the one that is not published in the media or in children’s books —is very different.

Imagine for a second that everyone sits around the Thanksgiving table this year and tells a different version of the story—one that explains the thousands of massacres Puritans committed in order to obtain land from the natives. It’s a story that mentions John Winthrop’s speech in 1637, in which he called for the killings of thousands of Pequot Indians to give newly arriving Englishmen access to land.

The complete Thanksgiving story would also have to include the banned speech Wamsutta James meant to deliver at the 350th anniversary celebration of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth in 1970. In it, James, a Native American, says, “This is a time of celebration for you—celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people.”

In fact, following the banning of James’ speech, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) created the National Day of Mourning—celebrated the same day as Thanksgiving.

Moonanum James, Wamsutta James’ son and co-founder of UAINE, explained on a speech on the 32nd National Day of Mourning in 2001 that this day, “is a powerful demonstration of not only Native unity but of the unity of all people who want the truth to be told and want to see an end to the oppressive system brought to these shores by the Pilgrim invaders.”

James further states: “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white men, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.”

This view shared by many Native Americans that still live in the United States has never been taken into account. If it were, Thanksgiving would be a very different holiday—or maybe it would not be a holiday at all.

It is easier for me to tell you this story precisely because I am not American. Unlike the vast majority of Tufts students, I have not celebrated the holiday year-after-year; I have no emotional attachment.

With the passing of the years, history has been distorted; it has been twisted so that this national holiday seems positively nationalistic. Celebrating Thanksgiving is a reflection of this biased history, of the history the privileged majority wants to remember.  As Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors,”.

However, by disregarding only certain parts of history, and patriotically learning about an altered history instead, we reinforce a racist paradigm—the red and white paradigm—on which America was founded and which remains present today.

I am not trying to propose that Thanksgiving should be eliminated, nor am I trying to say that Thanksgiving is purely negative. I certainly agree with the act of giving thanks. America has many values of which to be proud, including freedom, democracy, and individualism.

I found it very moving when a friend first invited me to celebrate Thanksgiving with her and her family. It was a wonderful experience to partake in this American tradition of giving thanks, and I enjoyed every second of the delicious meal that followed.

But even throughout the meal, I couldn’t help but wonder about the wider historical story we were celebrating. I just don’t think we could see Thanksgiving as a commemoration of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth, without taking into account the disastrous impact on the Native people who lived in that land for generations and who live here to this day, These much-neglected aspects of the historical story are just as important to the creation of the United States. Ignoring them is akin to giving thanks to an inaccurate history—a romanticized myth.

This national celebration has been in place for more than 150 years. Breaking away from this tradition is certainly a challenge, but it is a possible one. Historian Howard Zinn remains a powerful example of someone who believes history should be told unconventionally—from the perspective of the minorities, of the losers. He says, “The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”

The National Day of Mourning is an example of such revolt.  History has to be undistorted and unbiased, so that it includes the memories of all Americans—Native Americans included.

As a non-American, I would like to celebrate Thanksgiving knowing I am celebrating a holiday that fully represents the country where I am living.

As Robert Jensen states, “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 propose that we start telling the truth.