The Truth about Thanksgiving: Why You Should Celebrate

The First Thanksgiving, 1621, painting by J.L.G. Ferris (1863-1930).
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZC4-4961)

The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history.
James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 92.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving, as we take turns around the dinner table sharing why we are thankful, a sense of awkwardness settles in. The awkwardness is not only due to the “forced family fun” of having to quickly think of something profound to be thankful for. (Oh the pressure!) The growing awkwardness surrounding Thanksgiving stems from the fact that we know that at the table with us are the shadows of victims waiting to be heard.

Humans have an unfortunate characteristic – we don’t want to hear the voice of our victims. We don’t want to see the pain we’ve caused, so we silence the voice of our victims. The anthropologist Rene Girard calls this silencing myth. Myth comes from the Greek worth mythos. The root word, my, means “to close” or “to keep secret.”[1] The American ritual of Thanksgiving has been based on a myth that closes the mouths of Native Americans and keeps their suffering a secret.

As late as 1970, there were deliberate attempts to maintain the myth by keeping mouths shut. In his fascinating book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen tells the story of Frank James, a Wampanoag Indian who was selected to deliver a speech in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The Massachusetts Department of Commerce arranged the celebration and demanded that James show them a copy of his speech. Here’s what they read:

Today is a time of celebrating for you…but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans…Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers…little know that…before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags…and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them…Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts…What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.

That was too much for the organizers of the celebration. After all, during a celebration nobody wants to hear the voice of their victims, so they didn’t allow James to read his speech. The Massachusetts Department of Commerce isn’t the only one mythically closing the mouths and keeping secret the story of Native Americans. As Loewen claims, “What the Massachusetts Department of Commerce censored was not some incendiary falsehood but historical truth. Nothing James would have said…was false…Most of our [High School] textbooks also omit the facts about grave robbing, Indian enslavement, and so on …” (91).

Loewen wrote his book in 1995, examining 12 of the most popular High School textbooks. He surveyed six new textbooks in 2006 for an updated version of his book. Unfortunately, most of the textbooks continued the myth. Why are our history books tainted by the myth? Because we want our history to feel good. We want to feel good about our ancestors. We identify with them and if we begin to question their moral goodness then we have to question our own moral goodness, too.

Thanks to historians like Loewen and Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), we can no longer tell the myth that silences the voice of our victims. They are helping us re-invent Thanksgiving, and we should celebrate that fact. The truth of Thanksgiving, indeed, the truth of human history, is found when we listen to the voice of our victims. The point, as Loewen states in the quote that begins this article, is not to feel bad about our history, but rather to tell our history in an honest and inclusive way.

Dr. Tracy McKenzie is another historian who is helping us to tell history in an honest and inclusive way by encouraging us to think Christianly about Thanksgiving. His book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History tells the history of the Pilgrims and shows “how the real story lays bare key principles for thinking historically and Christianly about the past.” The book is currently featured on Patheos’s book club. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the historical roots of Thanksgiving. Along with my colleague Suzanne Ross, I interviewed Tracy at Patheos’s subscription Teaching Nonviolent Atonement channel. You can watch that interview for free here until November 30, after which it, and our many other archived videos, will be available only to subscribers.

So, it may feel awkward, but celebrate this Thanksgiving. Celebrate the fact that we are beginning to tell our history in an honest and inclusive way, because only by telling an honest and inclusive history can we have an honest and inclusive present. That honesty and inclusivity is reason to give thanks.

 

(For more on this topic, see Katelin Hansen’ article called “Creation Myths: Thanksgiving” on her fascinating blog on Christianity and race called By Their Strange Fruit.)


[1] See Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, 33.

 

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses memetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

  • Dorothy Grannell

    You are correct, there is much myth surrounding Thanksgiving. That being said, there is no reason why families can’t sit down together and take time to give thanks for life, health and whatever fortune – no matter what the size – they have. It is a holiday now marred by the great shopping days that follows but it is also an oasis where our primary purpose is to pray and give thanks. Our family likes Thanksgiving best of all the holidays because it is not political or economic but just a time out to realize how blessed we all are just to be here. It can be a time to commit to helping the earth and reconnecting to it.

    In Maine we are slowly beginning to recognize the damage that has been done in our name to the native peoples. The Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission is telling the stories of the damage done by removing native children from their homes. Following the Maine Indian Land Claims Case of the late 70′s, our Maine State history books were re-written by tribal historians and there have been updates since. We have made a start and there is much to learn and much to continue to learn.

    Every church should be looking to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery which launched the taking of native lands throughout the world. But when that is done, we have to recognize that there will be ramifications. We will have to give up some of our privilege.


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