-Rachel Siegel, PJC Executive Director
I am anticipating this Thursday with much ambivalence. I love to be with friends and family, I love to cook and to eat, I love a day with the wood stove going and games to play, I love that the world around me slows down, and I love to focus on gratitude.
However, I don’t want to be complicit in any reinforcement of the Thanksgiving myth. To that end, here are some things I plan to share with the people in my home on Thursday:
There was not one specific Thanksgiving holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as the fourth Thursday of each November. There were many moments when the pilgrims announced their gratitude and used the word “thanksgiving” – often multiple events in a single year. And most of these events are things that would make any person with a heart extremely upset. These were events when the Pilgrims had murdered people and were moving toward genocide and were offering thanks to god for allowing them to do his good work.
Prior to 1863, here are a few examples of moments of “thanksgiving” I have find.
In 1621, the year often cited as the original Thanksgiving, there is an event that I found multiple and conflicting versions of. One version says that the Pilgrims were delighted to have survived their first winter and were celebrating with a hunting party. They fired guns and cannons to celebrate, which drew the attention of the Wampanoags who came to see what was up and ended up staying for a meal. The other version says that the Pilgrims’ harvest had failed, and the Wampanoag came and donated food for them to have and they ate together. It was not called “Thanksgiving” at the time but has been retroactively credited with being the origin of the holiday. The European settlers were certainly already engaged in what would become a war of extermination.
In 1623, Governor Bradford proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the harvest. I don’t find record of Native people being invited.
In 1637, Governor John Winthrop declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered 700 Pequot Indians in what is now Mystic, CT. He wrote in his journal: “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.”
In 1676, after years of escalation and disproportionate violence, Wampanoag Chief Metacomet (called King Philip by settlers) was murdered. When he was killed, it was called the first real “day of public Thanksgiving for beginning of revenge upon the enemy.” His body was quartered, his hands shipped to Boston, and his head to Plymouth where it was impaled on a spike and displayed for 25 years.
When Lincoln proclaimed the official, annual holiday, he did this not to commemorate a historic friendly event of gratitude or harvest, but to bring harmony to people’s homes during the Civil War when so many families were torn apart. Thanksgiving as we know it was a political strategy.
Thanksgiving is rightfully a Day of Mourning for many. Indigenous cultures commemorate it in various ways – often solemn. Adding injury to harm, many First Nation people are reached out to this time of year and asked to represent their people and tell their story. While it is well-intended and important to want to hear the truth, it is exhausting for people living with systemic oppression and individual racism to do the emotional labor to educate us white people. Given that most schools are not yet teaching the true history of Thanksgiving, it is critical to take it upon ourselves. Google and YouTube are a great help to do our own research and I have sources listed below that you can dig into.
In closing, I leave you with this food for thought from a 2010 interview with Robert Jensen found on FubarAndGrill.org.
Alex Doherty (of Fubar and Grill): You have claimed that a close parallel to the conquest of America is the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. To many that will seem an outlandish and even an offensive comparison – can you explain why you think it is apt comparison?
Robert Jensen: I’m not comparing the events but rather the reaction to them. Here’s my argument I have made: 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?
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?
Comparisons to the Nazis are routinely overused and typically hyperbolic, but this is directly analogous. When I offer this critique in left/liberal circles, some people acknowledge that the argument is valid but make it clear they will continue to celebrate Thanksgiving. Others get angry and accuse me of posturing. It’s not posturing, but rather a struggle to understand how to live in a culture that cannot tell the truth.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. New Left Project’s Alex Doherty talked to him about Thanksgiving, the murder of indigenous people and the theft of their land by European colonialists.
Our guests might think I’m a buzzkill for disturbing what could be a lovely day. But that lovely day is predicated on denial, violence, and pain both historic and present. I will allow time to sit in that discomfort, and then we will share gratitude and strategies for resistance and change before we enjoy a day of relaxation and connection.