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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?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

12 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “But why have we willfully created an inadequate and inaccurate narrative about a supposed historical event to prop up Thanksgiving?”

    Originally: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, campaigned for the creation of the American holiday known as Thanksgiving, and for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument. She tried to influence five US presidents. Lincoln finally agreed.

    Now: Agriculture is very big business. Agriculture, food, and related industries contribute over 5% of U.S. GDP. Americans spend nearly 10% of their income on food each year and on average, consume over 3700 calories in the Thanksgiving meal. (In 2016, the Meyocks Thanksgiving Survey found that 56 percent of Americans always say a prayer before the Thanksgiving meal.)

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    How shall a woke and virtuous Reformed Xian both celebrate and mourn Thanksgiving?

    Let me propose:

    In my neck of the woods (south Chicago and Northwest Indiana) it is very popular on Turkey Day, after the dishes are put away, to go to the local bowling alley for the day. Attendance there dwarfs most local church Thanksgiving services. It is also very ecumenical – CRCers, RCA people, PR’s, and now URCers, PCA people, among others. You could say (unless maybe you’re PR) that it’s a true vision of Heaven.

    This tradition should end. We should do something in honor of and in penance to our Native American brethren and sistren.

    We should spend the day with the Pokegon Band of the Potawatami Indians at the Four Winds Casino in Southwest Michigan! Blackjack. Craps. Roulette. Slots. Whatever. Granted, Dutch people aren’t real fond of games of chance and probably aren’t experienced gamblers. As luck would have it, my (Reformed Evangelical) church has many ex-Catholic members. They could act as our Sacajawea, of sorts.

    Of course, it would be most appropriate for us to lose money that day. If, unfortunately, we do win cash money, perhaps we could give it to Mark Charles and he could continue to educate our Covenantal youth on the inherent racism of Western Civilization.

    Anyway, that’s my idea…

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      True vision of heaven: a 4-6 hour armistice in Stardust Lanes one Thursday a year from our Illiana area obsession with Dutch Reformed sectarian infighting? Until the following Monday, when we go back to our Shoe Corner collection of segregated-by-sect Dutch Reformed day schools and church buildings, and collect more boycott signatures for the high school Bible teachers who know and teach the difference between reading scripture with a fundamentalist hermeneutic of inerrancy and Reformed hermeneutic of infallibility. Thanks be to Jesus that he died and rose to introduce a gospel vision of the kingdom of heaven which is exponentially more ecumenical than the one passed on to us by our fathers and mothers.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        I just want to go to the casino.

        • Jessica A Groen says:

          You’re already in the casino: playing along with the gamblers who are counting on their community’s financial investments in buildings dedicated to ethnic and doctrinal purity to keep their real estate speculation profits rolling in, to the third and fourth generation.

          • Marty Wondaal says:

            You shouldn’t make assumptions about me. I am waaaaay more misanthropic in my community than anyone gives me credit for. I also am a bit of a self-loathing Shoe, if that makes sense. As far as doctrinal purity, on many days I embrace Arminianism, but then I decide, on my own, to go back to Calvinism.

            As far as real estate, here’s my tip to you: wait for the collapse of leftist Democratic control in Illinois, and then buy up land in South Shore, East Side, and Hegewisch. Your grandchildren will thank you.

            Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Harris says:

    Near as I can tell, the American narrative of Thanksgiving while nominally about Pilgrims and Indians, is fundamentally about a Yankee culture perspective on American identity. As McKenzie notes, “For 220 years after the the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no one remembered the event that later generations would recall as a defining episode in the founding of America” (148). Thanksgiving emerges in the time of Horace Mann and public education, the Transcendentalists (and their literary kin), the first abolitionists, and all anchored in a broad Unitarian faith. This is national identity as framed by Yankees, an assertion of intellectual and cultural leadership.

    This anchoring in a broad, civic religion (aka unitarian) identity proves particularly useful at the end of the 19th C with the emergence of mass commercialism (see Macy’s or Wannamakers), and the reincorporation of the defeated South into a national narrative. The narratives of race (white identity) and protestant culture are the central aspects of the traditional 20th C Thanksgiving narrative. How dos this feel on the outside? Richard Blanco has an answer in América (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56064/america-).

    As an aside, the notion of settlers displacing natives, of “using native land” seems to participate in the European ideas of ownership of discrete parcels of land; this notion of discrete ownership is not found in the native understandings.

  • David Stravers says:

    Followers of Jesus should continue to speak out against racism. Historians should also not neglect to highlight the minority of white citizens who spoke out against the racist policies that were implemented by the colonists and governing authorities in the early years of settlements. For instance, in the 1820’s and 1830’s there was a strong “anti-removal” movement that defended the rights and independence of the Cherokee nations living East of the Mississippi. Those who supported this movement declared the humanity and potential of the Cherokees both as individuals and as a “nation” with its own constitution and laws. (See http://www.common-place-archives.org/…). Historians typically describe the horrors of removal, but do not even mention that a very significant minority of white politicians and religious leaders worked to defend the Cherokees. Nor should historians neglect to mention the racist attitudes of native Americans that existed before the arrival of Europeans. Racism is not unique to Europeans. In fact, as Stephen Pinker documents (in The Better Angels of Our Nature), racism among native Americans resulted in violent deaths at a much higher rate than the rate of deaths after the arrival of Europeans.

    Some of my fondest Thanksgiving memories are of those dinners that included multi-cultural diners. Invite someone of a different color to join your Thanksgiving celebration.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    There is little doubt that the United States was less than “fair” to some, perhaps even most, “native Americans” as the nation began and expanded. On the other hand, most of that happened, historically speaking, while the “age of empire” was pretty much the dominant way nations (at least of great size) operated. Indeed, while the histories of the various “native American” tribes (nations) is a bit more hard to come by, it seems that they too were typical “age of empire” nations, even before Europeans began settling in the Americas. That is, they killed and conquered, just like other human beings in the world did.

    I do find interesting the Mark Charles’ attributed question/answer: “What happens when Christians rule? They enforce rules about their religious beliefs and practices and punish those who disagree.” Two responses: First, I’m often intrigued at how advocates on that side of the political divide (the one that tends to posit oppressor/oppressed groups as the paradigm for understanding both history and the present) tend to strongly deny that “the United States is or ever was a Christian nation” but then are equally quick to insist that all the evil the United States has ever done must be laid at the feet of Christians, presumably white ones. So which is it?

    As a second response, I would suggest that the influence of reformational Christianity, perhaps more than any other influence, moved the world from the “age of empire” to an age where the “rule of law” under a style of government that was far more “pluralistic” than the world had ever seen. US history has roughly spanned the two ages, beginning in the “age of empire,” being the fore-runner of, and developing into, the age where “rule of law” and “pluralism” dominated (at least in the West). Of course, the transition took time.

    My view is that the US has never been a “Christian nation” but yet was born from revolutionary political views that would not have developed, in a good way, but for the Protestant Reformation. Of course, the US had a long ways to go in the 18th century to reach an ideal “Reformation inspired” end, and probably still does. In fact, the US will never “do everything right,” but still , it might be more constructive to acknowledge that which was good in the development of the United States, both as a political entity and as a cultural, even if pluralistic, entity, such as may have never before existed (again in a good way).

    I don’t think it is helpful to incessantly hark back to a 500 year old papal bull (“Doctrine of Discovery”) as if it represents the start point of some unified and seamless effort by all Christians (or perhaps just white ones) to uniquely persecute all others. Hey, during the same rough time of the issuance of this papal bull, the Pope was killing (white) Christians, in the Netherlands and other European places, for their audacity in rejecting some of what the Roman Catholic Church represented. In other words, the myth that white Christians were a unitary monolith in (Europe or) the Americas, that was intent on destroying a unitary monolith of natives in the Americas who otherwise always and uninterruptedly lived in peace and harmony is just that: a myth.

    We do better to ask “how shall we decide and encourage others to live now?”, given the incredibly diverse histories of the many different groups and individuals that now live in the United States under a federalist governmental structure. Incessantly grouping by people who are oppressors and people who are oppressed.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Doug’s post is excellent, whether you agree with it or not. I personally do, and commend him for his views.

    I assume most (all?) contributors at Reformed Journal do not agree with Doug. I also suspect many (almost all?) humanities professors at the main Reformed Christian colleges ( Calvin, Hope, Dordt, Northwestern) do not agree with Doug. Nor do the bureaucratic employees at the CRC and the RCA. Not publicly, anyway.

    Yet I would also posit this: the majority of denominational members would agree with Doug, even though so many like-minded people have already left both denominations. Yet here is Doug (whom I don’t know personally) fighting relatively alone against the resources of institutions to which he and others have contributed. I assume Mark Charles is paid by the CRC and affiliated institutions to spread his message. That’s basically ok. I don’t know that anyone with Doug’s message is in a similar situation. That’s not justice, social or otherwise.

    Keep it up, Doug. You make the Banner worth reading.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thanks for your commitment, Rebecca, to exposing another misleading story from US civic religion bible which we white Christians insist on receiving, accepting, and perpetuating. I’m longing for more voices of leadership (especially among those who are vocally fearful about syncretism in Christian communities) who will speak the hard news that white supremacy, as it has become woven up with Christian theology, is the main form of syncretism among our own contemporaries: we white North American followers of Jesus. I’m thankful for the scholars and preachers who are speaking up more urgently as they recognize and reveal this syncretism. I wonder what is so threatening about acknowledging and confessing this age-old waywardness when it comes to neighbor-loving. Professing Christians did, and still do, justify many of their migrations (whether wagoning across the prairie in 19th century, or relocating church buildings further west and south from Chicago’s south side in 20th and 21st century) as spurred on by God’s will rather than by their socially invented distaste for, or dehumanization of, non-white or non-Christian neighbors. “Not all whites” or “not all Christians” is not the response of protest or denial called for here, but instead: “search me, O Lord, and try me, and see if there be any of this particular form of waywardness in me. I acknowledge that even without noticing or trying, I have inherited it, and don’t know how to easily extract it from my adult promises of commitment to follow you.”

    • Ann Clark Carda says:

      I find it interesting that amoung the folks who love to call out out syncretism where they see it, never seem to see it right in their own living room, bright and shining, every Christmas. Nothing beats putting up a pagan symbol in your house and calling it a “Christmas” tree!

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