Greetings from the land of the first “Thanksgiving”

I live on Cape Cod. Centuries before my Daddy bought this tiny plot of land, the whole neighborhood—the whole Cape and more—belonged to the Wampanoag people, the Natives who greeted the Pilgrims when they arrived on these shores. The same Natives who partook of that first “Thanksgiving” we all learned about.

Now, I’m a great advocate of giving thanks. I start the day by writing down three things I’m grateful for, and I will do on that the third Thursday of November, just as I do every day. But this year, the word “Thanksgiving” is sticking in my craw.

Because I live on Wampanoag land, I cannot forget that the Pilgrims were not the only participants at that dinner. And the Natives who shared that meal were not the savages of our history books.

The Wampanoag people at that first, perhaps turkey-themed, potluck represented a culture that had existed for some 12,000 years. If that’s not proof enough of “civilization” for you—if you insist on equating civilization with Westernization—this article by Clare Burgos in Smithsonian Magazine tells us that some of the Wampanoag people had already visited Europe; at least two spoke English well.

Not everything we learned about Thanksgiving was untrue—but most of it has been airbrushed to look prettier. Yes, the Wampanoag leader wanted to strike an alliance with the Pilgrims: his people needed help to fight their enemy, the Narragansets. And yes, the Pilgrims needed help too—the harsh winter and all—but having bought their first bits of land from the Wampanoag, the white Europeans decided they now had license to take over the whole continent. Which, over the course of the next couple hundred years, they did.

As David Silverman, who’s written about the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims, put it in the Smithsonian article:

“Imagine a flotilla of Wampanoag canoes crosses the Atlantic and goes to England, and then the Wampanoags buy land from the English there. Has that land now passed out of the jurisdiction of England and become the Wampanoags’? No, that’s ridiculous. But that’s precisely what the English were assuming on this side of the Atlantic.”

This is probably not the source of the adage “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile,” but it almost literally could be.

Just what is “Thanksgiving”?

Being an American of European extraction, I have to wonder, Just what am I celebrating on Thanksgiving Day?

I can’t close my eyes to the historical facts and celebrate the myth of inter-racial comity—it didn’t exist then and it certainly doesn’t exist today, much as we wish it did.

I can’t exalt the rapaciousness of my white forebears.

I can’t ignore the pain of modern-day Native Americans, who have to live through our celebration of the Pilgrims and the “Savages”—told exclusively and unthinkingly through the lens of white privilege.

So what’s the solution? What do we do about “Thanksgiving”? I have some suggestions:

Rebrand: I’m calling it the “Big Dinner Holiday” this year; I’d love to see that moniker stick. After all, there’s nothing wrong with eating turkey until you fall asleep in the mashed potatoes. There’s nothing wrong with mixing crumbled bread with butter and herbs and calling it a dish. I do not begrudge you the pumpkin pie (at my house we’re going for apple-cranberry this year)—and I wish you lots of real whipped cream to go with it.

Rethink: Gratitude is an awesome emotion around which to center a holiday. But as you tuck into your meal, maybe give a thought to those who aren’t quite so fortunate. If you can, make a donation to a local food pantry; if you can’t spare the money, volunteer to work in a soup kitchen.

Reprogram: If you can’t do either of those things—I know, COVID-19—spread the word. Broaden your understanding of the true nature of “Thanksgiving” and help your family and friends do the same.

I once heard a priest say this about religion, but I don’t think he’d mind my substituting a different word here:

“There’s nothing wrong with having a fifth-grade understanding of Thanksgiving. If you’re in the fifth grade.”

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