-Rachel Siegel, PJC Executive Director
I was dismayed when I read an article in the Burlington Free Press on Thanksgiving called “Turkey Twists” that made no mention of the mythology surrounding the holiday, the true violence of its history, and the increasing number of people who are deeply uncomfortable with it.
What I learned in school was that Thanksgiving marked the anniversary of a big party and feast to celebrate the friendship between the “Pilgrims” and the “Indians.” What I know now is that there were many “thanksgiving” moments, some of which are completely offensive and based on the dehumanization and attempted annihilation of Indigenous peoples.
For example, in 1637, after the Puritans trapped and killed 700 Pequot Indians, they wrote, “To see them frying in the fire, and the streams of their blood quenching the same, and the stench was horrible; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God.” This event may have marked the first Thanksgiving. To put this in context, lest you think it an anomaly, in the prior 10 years 12,000 settlers had invaded and decimated the population of the Massachusetts Nation from 24,000 to less than 750.
I encourage you to re-read this paragraph slowly and out loud. It is a lot to absorb.
Then, in 1676, the Chief Metacomet of the Wampanoag Nation was murdered by settlers. His body was quartered, hands shipped to Boston, and head to Plymouth where it was set upon a pole. This was officially proclaimed a “day of public Thanksgiving for beginning of revenge upon the enemy.”
Many more official Thanksgiving days were declared including Governor Joseph Dudley’s pronouncement in 1704 of a “General Thanksgiving — not in celebration of the brotherhood of man — but for [God’s] infinite Goodness to extend His Favors…In defeating and disappointing… the Expeditions of the Enemy [Indians] against us, And the good Success given us against them, by delivering so many of them into our hands.”
There were sometimes multiple Thanksgivings named in the same year until President Washington said there should be just one a year. Following that, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday. Lincoln’s decision was seen by many as a strategic decision to help being unity to the country during the Civil War. It had nothing to do with settler and Indigenous people, little to do with harvest, and much to do about the economy.
I have tried to distance myself from all this horror and focus on gratitude, harvest, and family (birth family and chosen family) but it has become increasingly hard for me to reconcile the real history with my experience. Alex Doherty made a useful analogy between the European conquest of this continent and the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. Not the actual events, but the reaction to them. He says, in a 2010 quote: “Imagine that Germany had won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday based on a sanitized version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Would we not question the distortions woven into such a celebration and denounce such a holiday as grotesque? “
He goes on to say: “Now, imagine that left/liberal Germans — those who were critical of the power structure that created that distorted history and who in other settings would challenge the political uses of those distortions — put aside their critique and celebrated the holiday with their fellow citizens, claiming that they could change the meaning of the holiday in private. Would we not question that claim?
Starting a few years ago, when I would mention my Thanksgiving plans to Indigenous friends, I would be deeply uncomfortable. Now that discomfort extends to my mentioning it to anyone. I now refer to it as “the holiday that some call Thanksgiving.” I don’t want to be part of the sanitizing of the history by unconsciously deepening people’s understanding of the day as one of love and friendship.
I do not have answers but hope you will join me in unpacking all of this. I pledge to continue to increase my knowledge of true history and the impact of current events on people of different backgrounds than me.
For more PJC articles related to Thanksgiving check out: