This past Thursday, I spent quite a lot of time reading about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s been a topic for a while now. And having more and more interaction with the Indigenous friends in our lives makes this kind of contemplation ever more prevalent.
I think it started with a call to some friends, a couple we know – one Indigenous and one non-Indigenous, about a family matter. After discussing the situation, I ended up asking what their Thanksgiving plans were. There was hesitation. Then one said they were working. And I got this kind of uncomfortable feeling like I’d committed a social faux pas as I hung up the phone. I texted an Anishanaabe Elder I know for an opinion. I know their opinion isn’t the be all end all. I know there are a WIDE variety of opinions and beliefs but I trusted this person to know my heart and give me thoughtful input about the situation. They assured me that they are not usually offended by someone asking of their Thanksgiving Day plans as they get what people mean by asking. Personally, they just answer “honestly and briefly… No political debate necessary”. If it becomes a big deal, they suggested, perhaps these folks just don’t want to be friends. Well, I will definitely talk this through with my friends when I see them again in person and hopefully their input will again give me more food for thought.
I do agree with my Elder friend that this is typically just a day to join with others, have a meal, and be thankful for the harvest. And I think more than ever these days, it’s just a mindless part of our culture – yes, a predominantly white colonizer culture (is mindless a necessary descriptor or inherent in this one?) It’s very complex. For most in the Unites States I would guess it’s just “what we do every year”. We have turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. It’s maybe that one time a year yams get any attention for many.
Then I noticed much more posting this year on FB about the downside of this holiday, the horror of it. And so I began to think about it a bit more. I began reading. And I started considering the thoughtlessness and materialism of it all as I became more informed.
It’s largely a capitalist dream come true for turkey sellers, cranberry growers, grocery stores, airlines, and Big Oil as the biggest travel day of the year. Everyone makes plans to begin the “holiday season” (though I guess some consider Halloween the start of the season now…) with visits and overeating and football. Oh, yeah, the NFL. Oh, and I guess basketball too. Eat and watch TV. This is pretty much the holiday for many. And if you really think about it, it’s kind of a mindless mess. And it’s very typical of what has been United States mainstream culture for most of my life.
Our holiday was not exactly typical: nuclear family sitting down for a meal that took all day to prepare with multiple layers of appetizers, drinks, meal, dessert, coffee, sandwiches later, more dessert, more drinks. But it wasn’t too far from typical. Mom and I prepared some simple food. Dan and I brought a pork roast from a pig friends of ours raised that we cooked overnight in the crock pot (and which turned out pretty amazing if I do say so myself). Mom baked a cherry pie and I made pumpkin custard (though I forgot my own organic pumpkin prepared last fall and frozen so had to get some canned organic pumpkin puree while we were in Duluth just prior to being at Mom’s). She found a GF corn soufflé recipe and made it and we boiled some potatoes for mashing. We took the juice from the roast and made a quick corn starch gravy and I baked some new GF rolls I’ve been trying to perfect. This was the third attempt and they were once again good… but AGAIN the yeast failed me – they were not light and fluffy. They were, once again, more biscuits than rolls. But they were tasty. All in all, we put in a couple hours on preparation but we were not harried, we were relaxed. It was not super complex, it was a pretty simple meal. And we invited over a friend who lives alone to join us. We called the boy in Colorado and chatted with him and his partner. We spent much more time and attention on their cat, Jax, than psychologists would likely say is healthy. After dinner, we did a brief round of saying what we’re thankful for and I felt like we’d put at least some thought into it. Could it have been much more thoughtful? Yes. And perhaps next year we will have a better plan as this seems for me to be a year of learning.
While we were at Mom’s, MSNBC had a brief story about Lincoln’s declaration of the Thanksgiving holiday back in 1863. Dan informed me that Lincoln made his declaration for a day of thanksgiving just after the battle of Chickamouga, one of the bloodiest losses of the Civil War with 34,624 casualties. However, Lincoln’s proclamation said nothing of pilgrims or Indians or turkeys for that matter. It was a imploring that God heal the “wounds of the nation” and restore a “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
Washington issued a similar proclamation 74 years earlier to the day on 10-3-1789. While his did not create a national holiday, it too had nothing to do with pilgrims, Indians, or turkey. Again, it was in deference to “Almighty God” and requested our humble thanks for “his Providence in the courfe and conclufion of the late war” (Revolutionary) among other things. [I’m not sure if there just weren’t enough “s” type pieces or if the “f” and “s” pieces were somehow in proximity and thus often interchanged during typesetting.]
And now there is evidence that the “first” Thanksgiving may have happened in St Augustine, Florida! (1565) [But, of course, this is Fox News so there is little evidence or fact offered in the story… ] The Catholics had more on it along with a second “Thanksgiving” held April 30, 1598 in Texas! This Texas Almanac link was full of details on this and closes with enough examples of claims to the holiday to prove there are too many claims to the beginnings of “Thanksgiving” to give an exhaustive list.
In reality, any discussions of the “first Thanksgiving” are wrong regardless as peoples of all kinds have for centuries practiced feasts of “thanksgiving”. Even though it began officially in the U.S. as the last Thursday in November under Lincoln, Roosevelt moved it to the earlier fourth Thursday in 1939, prompted by requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association because the later date only allowed 20 shopping days for Christmas! [Told you it was a capitalist dream come true!] Roosevelt had declined their request in 1933 as he thought it would create confusion and he proved this was the case in 1939 when he granted it and only 23 states joined him in the move while 23 states stayed with the original last Thursday. Texas and Colorado apparently celebrated both days… Confusion continued in 1940 and, in 1941 Roosevelt made it official with a national law declaring the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving Day. Texas held out until 1957 in adhering to the new national law by finally changing their state law to match.
After quite a bit of time reading about the history and the mythology, I found many good links for further edification. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks gave a shorter historical review of what many think of as the “first Thanksgiving” in her History of Massachusetts Blog. A longer and more complex explanation, with detailed journal entries, was given by Karen Felte in 2001.
For most Americans, the main idea of Thanksgiving’s beginnings lie in the mythology of a struggling colonial population learning skills from their Native friends , which culminated in a celebration in 1621 of a great “thanksgiving” feast after the harvest.
The details are a bit trickier when you dig into it. The colonists did struggle after arriving in 1607 at Jamestown because of severe drought and cold winters. Their arrival coincided with a seven-year drought (1606–1612), the driest stretch in 770 years. The subsequent pressure by the English on the Natives for help led to conflict and eventually a siege of their fort by Powhatan, the main chief of many local Natives, in 1609 that resulted in something I don’t recall learning about, the Starving Time. This only ended when reinforcements brought advantage back to the English and allowed the capture of Powhatan’s daughter – someone you might have heard of… Pocahontas – who was used as leverage to negotiate a peace. After all this, I find it hard to believe there could ever have been a “peaceful celebration feast between pilgrims and Indians” less than ten years later.
There is also belief that the true meaning of Thanksgiving is a result of the Mystic Massacre of 1637. Part of the Pequot Wars, this May 23rd attack occurred during the Native’s own Green Corn Festival. The two exits to the Pequot Fort were set afire by forces commanded by Captains John Mason and John Underhill after an initial rush into Fort Mystic was found to be overwhelming. In this burning, the colonists killed hundreds, most of the village, including many women, elderly, and children. Anyone who attempted escape was killed by the English forces or the Narragansett and Mohegan allies that backed them. Following the attack, the Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a “day of thanksgiving”.
“The 12th of the 8th m. was ordered to bee kept a day of publicke thanksgiving to God for his great m’cies in subdewing the Pecoits, bringing the soldiers in safety, the successe of the conference, & good news from Germany.” ~ Nathaniel Shurtleff, ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Vol I. Boston, 1853. p.204
As with any portion of history, there are many sides to the story and many perspectives of belief. Yes, some were grateful for the Fort Mystic Massacre. But others expressed regret for the injustice. Just like the German Holocaust, some Germans failed to evade the brainwashing of the Nazis while others, namely the White Rose Society members, stood strongly against them throughout. Even today we cannot find common ground on killings. And while some in the long ago past may have celebrated a massacre of the Pequot with a day of “publicke thanksgiving to God for his great m’cies in subdewing the Pecoits”, I would hope to believe that few if anyone today is celebrating Thanksgiving with the massacre of Indians in mind.
“While few would suggest that Thanksgiving should become the occasion for a yearly guilt trip, we would do well to remember the price the first Americans paid for European expansion into their territories as we sit around the bountiful table with our family and friends. Only by openly acknowledging the sins of our collective past, is it possible to proceed toward a future that all Americans can feel thankful for.” ~ Richard Schiffman, Huffington Post
In reality, every time we feast, we are truly, consciously or subconsciously, giving thanks. And this is more in line with an idea expressed in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer where she discusses The Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee. In this video, these people discuss the beauty and power of this practice. We are dependent on Creator and all of Creation for our continued survival. It is thoughtful and respectful to remember this with ongoing thanks-giving. To remember that we are all connected to Mother Earth and all her residents.
I have friends who offer tobacco (aka kinikinik) daily. Not growing up in a religious household or one that followed any daily rituals, this is somewhat foreign to me. Though I have incorporated some forms of ritual that I’ve gathered over the years as part of my own practices, I’m quite inconsistent with anything. I have quite an eclectic mix of practices but I am more of an as-it-comes-to-mind-in-my-daily-endeavors kind of practitioner rather than one who prays before each meal or as a morning routine. But I kind of live in a constant state of gratitude as best I can. It’s difficult in these trying times to hold to gratitude but I do my best.
From this year’s coverage, I thought these stories were interesting:
Sioux Chef Sean Sherman shares his perspective with Carol Hills of PRI’s The World.
After years of racism and sexist news out of NC, this story highlights a controversy regarding teaching of Thanksgiving in schools that occurred in North Carolina’s Wake County public schools district after a tweet by Lauryn Mascareñaz of the district’s Office of Equity Affairs. IMO, this article appropriately references this excerpt:
“More than a century later, the U.S. still wrestles with challenges of diversity, and we’re still tempted to distort the “first Thanksgiving” into one of two equally present-minded morality tales: the heart-warming multicultural celebration or the cruel reminder of European colonialism. Both tell us more about current perspectives than historical realities. If such caricatures are really our best options, historical truth would be better served by deleting Thanksgiving from the curriculum entirely.” ~ NY Times opinion by Robert Tracy McKenzie
I believe what’s important to remember is that there are many ideas and memories around this holiday. Some are happy and inclusive and compassionate and some are horrible and cruel and brutal. I believe they are all a part of the history of where we are today and can be thoughtfully incorporated into perhaps a new day in the future where we heal the hurts of the past and celebrate our communal bounty. But first we must find a way to come together to determine what wounds need healing and how we can best go about doing that. And likely first we need to find a way to find common ground together as we strive to forge a more loving and compassionate world. We have a long way to go… but we can take a first step.