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If it snows in November, is it because folks are decorating for Christmas? So I have been told. But I would have to live in a cave not to see that Christmas consumption and wars over red cups and tidings are just around the corner. But this week we have a chance to pause and enjoy Thanksgiving. It is a national holiday that celebrates gratitude and is centered around food in a somewhat modern take on a harvest festival. What’s not to love?
This week, I had the opportunity to hear Mark Charles speak on campus. Charles is a Navajo activist and author who provides an alternative view of American history: a nation that is systematically racist and has continuously worked to promote racist interests. I was particularly interested in Charles’ questions about Christian empires. What happens when Christians rule? They enforce rules about their religious beliefs and practices and punish those who disagree. Is that the sort of kingdom Jesus came to establish? Charles also points to the Doctrine of Discovery, a 1452 papal bull that decreed any lands forfeit that belonged to non-Christians, as the key ideology of Europeans who came to colonize, steal, and take the lands of the Americas as their own.
What is the typical white American narrative of Thanksgiving? I suspect that for many of us, there is some variation on a narrative that includes the natives kindly helping the English colonists to grow food and survive, and a shared feast of celebration and thanks between the two groups at harvest time. What does that narrative tell us about the ways that we choose to think about our relationships with native peoples? Historian Robert Tracey McKenzie, in his book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History, writes, “the story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about we have defined our identity across the centuries” (10).
Most narratives fail to include the ways that the colonists repaid the natives kindness by systematically taking away their lands and ways of life.
To be clear: I enjoy Thanksgiving and appreciate the emphasis on gratitude. I am glad it is a federal holiday. But, as McKenzie points out, Thanksgiving is a civil holiday, decreed by the state and not by the church. Thanksgiving is also a holiday to which American Christians impute religious significance, and is remembered as a specific historical moment of celebration almost 400 years ago (21).
The actual historical evidence of a first Thanksgiving is scant, if nonexistent: Longtime governor, William Bradford made no mention of it in his extensive writings. Neither did his nephew, Nathaniel Morton, suggesting if something like this did occur, it did not rate as very important. Edward Winslow, Bradford’s young assistant wrote an 1621 account to the London merchants financing the Pilgrims’ venture that emphasized their success in the ‘new world’:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
In the words of McKenzie: “read literally, [Winslow’s] account says only that the Wampanoag showed up, which leave us wondering whether they were honored guests or the kind of obnoxious neighbors who come knocking on the door whenever they smell the barbecue (36).” After all, tensions between the natives and colonists was always high, given that the Pilgrims were using native land and competing for resources with the natives.
I heartily support a holiday that emphasizes gratitude and thankfulness. But why have we willfully created an inadequate and inaccurate narrative about a supposed historical event to prop up Thanksgiving?