Beneath a false historical narrative, a harmful pageant, and a beguiling dinner tradition resides a real longing — for both giving thanks and for reconciliation. Might this longing guide us towards a more authentic story to live by than the Pilgrims and Indians myth?
“There is a longing at the Thanksgiving table: a longing for reconciliation,” Pastor Katerina Friesen said to me while we were discussing one of our favorite — and most challenging — holidays.
I exhaled with a deep yes. Grateful, once again, to be on a decolonizing journey that keeps taking me into a deeper relationship with Spirit. Yes, we are longing for reconciliation between settlers and indigenous peoples. On this 400th anniversary of the 1621 feast, can we begin to recognize that longing?
My ancestors came to this land from England shortly after the Mayflower. Their story followed the classic narrative: Puritans looking for a new home and a kind of promised land who found hospitality first and then were rescued by Native peoples from a winter for which they were woefully unprepared. Given the deep debt of life that my ancestors owed their Indigenous hosts and neighbors, I want to ensure that we find a way for our recollection of our shared history to be as honoring to Indigenous peoples as possible, contributing to peace and reconciliation. Not because of guilt or shame, but because of justice, love, and gratitude. I want to be able to give as much thanks as I can, not only to my immediate circle of friends and family, but to the descendants of the people who saved my ancestors from extreme hardship and near certain death.
The word “reconciliation” can be a challenging term, in part because in the case of Indigenous-settler relations, there was not a strong ‘conciliation’ to begin with. I hope that this conversation can help us push the word itself around; framing such as “shalom” might be more appropriate. I’m using the word here because I don’t yet have a better word. Perhaps the word I’m seeking will not be found in English. Too often, even in spiritual communities, reconciliation has ceased to include repentance, atonement, true healing, justice and actual collaboration. Certainly, the spiritual movement we are trying to open ourselves to is one that will take much deep listening. (This is part of why we are offering online conversations before and after Thanksgiving on these themes, which you can sign up for here.)
Friesen, organizer of the Anabaptist-led Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, works on a daily basis with her colleagues to confront and find ways to untangle the ugly history of colonization, a reality our national narrative has not yet admitted, much less acted upon. She, like myself, has struggled with what is, for both of us, one of our most beloved celebrations: Thanksgiving. The only national holiday dedicated to giving thanks, honoring the land and the harvest, gathering our friends/families, and feasting. And football.
It is, arguably, the most important holiday in collectively enacting and re-enacting what it means to be American. Here are we actively engaging with our country’s origin story? Is this holiday celebrating the destruction of Native American cultures? In what ways can we tell our origin stories differently, to move us closer towards real reconciliation?
We see in the Thanksgiving celebration an enactment of a deep longing on behalf of (first but not only) white settlers for reconciliation. We long for unity as a people; for a welcome embrace and an acceptance of our presence here for those whose ancestors arrived uninvited or unwilling. We long to be in fellowship with Indigenous people. We want to sit around the table and share food together. Might this even be a spiritual longing for unmerited grace? Perhaps.
Here’s the catch, the thing that we miss as long as we perpetuate the illusion captured in the imagery of fantasy of the first Thanksgiving:
Despite everything — the genocide, the broken treaties, the destruction of burial grounds, the near-complete loss of the great buffalo herds, the ways the White Man has misused the land and polluted the waters and the skies and the seas, and the purposeful and horrific boarding schools’ destruction souls, of lives, of entire families, of languages that took centuries to develop and wisdom that took generations to develop, the continued murdered and missing indigenous women — despite all of that, which really is far too much, indigenous people are still here. Their voices are rising. And many are more than willing to extend a hand to their European-descendent neighbors. Not always. But sometimes.
That it can happen at all is nothing short of a miracle. A grace that those of us from European Christian backgrounds might not deserve. A grace founded less on what is “just” so much as what is needed: our collective survival; the chance, however slim, that we may all come to work together today towards a more harmonious tomorrow.
What if we see the reconciliation not as a past event, but a future possibility (or even an ever-present possibility outside of linear time)?
To explore these questions, we need to delve deeper into both the complex histories of Thanksgiving, the dynamic nature of origin stories, justice, atonement, and the transformational potentials of gratitude and reconciliation.
An Unsettling of the European Settlers’ Version of Thanksgiving
Many different perspectives are bringing forth different and often more accurate re-tellings of a moment that we have come to associate with our country’s origin story. In addition to listening to stories shared by the Wampanoag people themselves and more comprehensive histories shared by indigenous historians including the Indigneous Peoples’ History of the United States, I have found immensely helpful David Silverman’s thorough history, This Land is Their Land, which, unusually, intertwines Wampanoag oral history with written historical documentation from European, early American and (later) indigenous sources. A recounting of some of this history is helpful to enable us to go deeper into the questions of ‘what are we being grateful for’ and ‘what is being reconciled’.
For thousands of years, the Wampanoag and other peoples lived in the Americas, creating a complex, thriving, sophisticated and highly regenerative culture that included vibrant Harvest Celebrations. The Wampanoag were a large and powerful community, estimated between 24,000 to 100,000 people, with 69 villages and complex diplomatic relations with their neighbors, including their traditional enemies, the neighboring Narragansett, Morgan and Pequot peoples. In 1524, nearly a hundered years prior to the Mayflower, the Wampanoag and their neighbors had multiple encounters with Europeans, varying from trading to being stolen and sold into slavery. Several spoke English and were quite familiar with European customs. Contact with European ships brought epidemics, decimating their population and destabilizing local political relations. In 1620 the Wampanoags were in a state of military tension, if not full-scale war with their neighbors the Narragansetts.
When the Mayflower landed in the area the Wampanoag called Patuxet, the Wampanoag were wary, and watched the newcomers from a distance. The Pilgrims did little to earn their trust: in their first few days, they desecrated Indigenous graves and raided their hosts’ stores of corn. Despite such rude and potentially life-threatening behavior, the Wampanoag did not kill them; a decision that might have shifted the arc of history. After watching them for several months, in the Spring of 1621, they reached out to them, brokered and negotiated a complex multi-cultural alliance, and effectively brought the English into their political and economic system of governance, foodways, local politics, and cultural exchanges.
While much of the cultural exchanges made the Pilgrims uncomfortable, it also enabled them to survive and even thrive. They held a ‘day of rejoicing.’ This was not a Day of Thanksgiving: that special occasion, in the pilgrim lexicon, was reserved for days of fasting and prayer. They did not invite their Wampanoag neighbors.
They did shoot several of their guns in celebration. The Wampanoags, hearing the highly unusual gun shots, came running with 90 warriors — as much to possibly protect their neighbors. Thus the two communities found themselves, fully armed, at the gates of the Pilgrim’s palisade. It is worth quoting Silverman’s comments on this moment, which has been for too long missing from our collective narrative:
“The two peoples possessed just enough trust in each other that no one overreacted. They had forged an alliance through diplomacy, trade, and mutual assistance in the face of emergencies. Their leaders now knew each other personally and called each other friends. Instead [of war], both sides let down their guard. For the next three days, the two peoples “entertained and feasted” together in what amounted to something in between a state dinner and the kind of casual mingling that the Wampanoags considered basic to the alliance” (pg 171).
The Wampanoag even went out for a short hunt and brought back five deer to share, and the celebrations carried on for several days, and might have included playing games together; it certainly included dancing. In addition to the deer, foods most likely would have included fish and fowl, corn, beans, squash, and possibly some cranberries. It was a celebratory moment of fellowship that was, in many ways, unusual for its time. Prayers were most likely said.
There was no conceding to colonialism. There was, instead, an expectation, and at least briefly a reality, of mutual aid. The colonists supported the Wampanoag’s own battles with their neighbors, the Narragansetts, which had worsened due to the horrific epidemic of 1616–19. For a very short period of time, this shaky alliance held. And then began a 400-year history of breaking treaties.
For generations, nothing was remembered about this moment. It was not, initially, a significant part of how the fledgling colonies narrated their own origin story.
For New Englanders, the Pilgrims’ and their relationships to the Natives was important, immortalized in local tradition in Plymouth, Boston, and other locations as “Forefathers Day” in 1769, an annual celebration of the arrival of the Pilgrims, practiced first in the Old Colony Club (founded the same year) in Plymouth. A feast with indigenous foods was the center of the attention, especially succotash, a stew of corn and beans (from the Narragansett word sohquttahhash). Over the next century many notable Americans gave speeches on Founders Day, including Daniel Webster in 1820, who praised the Pilgrims for setting the stage for a government with greater freedom and “a higher degree of religious freedom” than the world had previously known. This is particularly ironic given that indigenous peoples had no right to practice their religious beliefs; within a few years, the Doctrine of Discovery would become become entrenched in U.S. property law in Johnson v McIntosh.
As conservative historian Melanie Kirkpatrick writes in Thanksgiving: the holiday at the heart of the American Experience, “Forefathers Day elevated the Pilgrims to the national consciousness and helped to secure their place in American history, and, eventually, their association with Thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving as a celebration, associated with but not always the same as Forefathers Day, was gaining popularity in the 1800s. The association with the First Thanksgiving did not actually occur until the rediscovery of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation in 1855. Kirkpatrick estimates that by the 1860s, the Thanksgiving holiday’s connection with Pilgrims was well established in popular culture.
While many other origin points for European-Indigenous contact and the birth of America were not only possible but had earlier historical origins, including New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia, the WASPy New Englanders were adept at influencing the national narratives. Large paintings and other images began circulating, all of which depicted a scene that no one living had seen. Those images, which we now often refer to as ‘the’ images of the First Thanksgiving, depicted not the original moment, but a mythical origin story that those painters, historians, and cultural leaders were longing to be true.
These images that have deeply influenced our notions of what Thanksgiving, and the main characters in it, symbolize— far more than what actually happened. Thus, in so many ways, the meanings we associate with Thanksgiving are entrenched with what Americans in the 1800s thought they should be grateful for, which itself was a reflection of their own longings and values. In this origin story, the Indian was almost a mythical, fictional character, who, like the Pilgrims, was no longer with us. The images and the myths that grew up in the late 1700s and 1800s depicted the land as a ‘virgin wilderness’ just waiting for European exploitation, and the indigenous peoples as either highly friendly and welcoming or passive and ignorant savages.
All of which is utterly false, and played in far more to the growing sense of Manifest Destiny than to the ugly reality of white settlers embarking on what Dunbar-Ortix describes as “an ingrained, streamlined, and effective process” of eradicating and forcing into dependency and servitude thousands of people. American (white) cultural leaders wanted to see themselves as enacting the desire of God, instead of what many indigenous peoples experienced: immense suffering at the hand of men who had little care for the fate of the forests, rivers, fish and animals of their homeland.
So long as our recollection of this moment implies that their overarching relationships were always friendly and equitable, and, even worse, that the Natives were docile, and willingly stepped aside, giving permission for their land and waterways and knowledge to the newcomers, the overarching narrative is utterly false. It does grave harm to the descendants of settlers, indigenous peoples, and all who have come to call this land home.
Initial welcome there often was — permission for land theft and genocide there was not.
The Thanksgiving attached to a massacre
As I mentioned in a longish review of the history that I first wrote last year, while the first feast was not considered to be a “Thanksgiving” feast, there is another feast that there was.
Several years after the 1621 feast, in May of 1637, in the midst of the bloody Pequot War, a small group of Pilgrims, with their Mohegan and Narragansett allies, massacred Pequot men, women, and children on the dawn of their Green Harvest Festival. The English subsequently named a Day of Thanksgiving, celebrated in Churches across New England.
So far as I know, this celebration of a massacre was not the feast that the historians and cultural leaders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were pointing to. It is a moment that has gained much traction in recent retellings of Thanksgiving, in part because Howard Zinn lifts it up, and in part because it resonates with the deeper discomfort we have come to have with Thanksgiving: the fear that we are giving thanks for the destruction of indigenous America. While the First Thanksgiving pointed to a meal that was indeed celebratory, it still symbolizes not only a moment of togetherness but a moment of relative calm before the storm. Within 50 years, the indigenous communities who extended a helping hand to the European new comers were practically slaves of those same newcomers.
As Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag Cultural Outreach Coordinator, reflected in a recent interview for the Washington Post that, “for us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization. Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.”
The United States has not been able to conceive of itself alongside strong and sovereign indigenous nations. As a result of that lack of radical imagination, much of which is deeply related to entrenched notions of private property as the only road to “freedom” and “security”, indigenous nations have been squashed and narrowly confined. “Termination narratives” have predominated white histories of indigenous peoples in the America: they are gone/dead/as good as gone, and it was largely inevitable.
The very survival of indigenous peoples is a testament to the limitations of those narratives. Today, there is a different yearning: not of domination but of coming to live in something that resembles right relationship. Of finding new imaginations of how to live together. Of recognizing the immense gifts, teachings, and knowledge that Indigenous Peoples continue to hold. Of wanting to unlearn the lies and relearn more accurate, and often more complex, histories.
Just as the Americans of the 17th and 18th centuries re-imagined that harvest celebration into a Thanksgiving Dinner, so too can we re-imagine that harvest celebration, and in the process, re-shape Thanksgiving according to a different moral code; one that values truth and listening to indigenous peoples today. One that takes the images of reconciliation, senses the longing within them, and re-directs that longing into different attitudes, actions, and even atonements.
Perhaps what we can see in the images of “Pilgrims and Indians” sitting together is not (only) a mythical past but a possible future.
A future that is only possible with a lot of truth telling, healing, and active change.
What if we stopped projecting our longing for reconciliation into the past and to start actively working on it as a future possibility?
Reconciliation has always been part of the gratitude at the heart of Thanksgiving. To better understand this dynamic, we need to go back to the ‘middle’ of the story, which is also one of the beginnings of one of America’s home grown holidays.
2. Thanksgiving: An Attempt at Reconciliation and National Unity
The “Mother of Thanksgiving” was Sally (Sarah) Josepha Hale: a white woman from what today we might consider an upper middle class background born in 1788 in New Hampshire. Her father fought in the Revolutionary War, encouraged her self-taught educational style, and probably never told her that in the Algonquin language, the land she grew up on was known as N’dakinna, and was the traditional ancestral homeland of the Abenaki, Pennacook, and Wabanaki Peoples, past and present. She was a fierce advocate for emancipation of African peoples enslaved throughout the US. After writing one of the first novels about slavery (Northwood) that quickly became a best seller, she became the editor (she preferred the title “editress”) of one of the most prominent magazines, Ladies’ Magazine and later the Godfrey’s Ladies Book, which she used to uplift American women’s voices — primarily white women. In this role, she became one of the most significant arbiters of the growing American culture and American taste in fashion, literature, children’s literature, cooking, and morality. It is, indeed, difficult to overstate the influence that she and her magazines had — they were far more influential in her day than any single woman’s magazine today. We might, perhaps, compare her influence to Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. And, too often forgotten, Hale spent 17 years advocating that Thanksgiving become a national holiday to multiple U.S. presidents.
Hale recognized the importance of the homemaker in influencing the national conversation. She certainly understood the power of meals around a table. She saw the potential of the holiday to unify the nation (she was correct in that). She recognized Thanksgiving’s value in forming moral character.
Most of the presidents ignored her. Which is not to say Thanksgiving Proclamations were not made — they were — and often with a strong political intent. The proclamations, and encouraging days of prayer and thanksgiving, were deeply embedded in the early formation of the United States.
George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 as part of both giving thanks for the end of the Revolutionary War and as a way to encourage all people to come together in prayers of gratitude to Almighty God after the War. His Proclamation was decidedly ecumenical, made no mention of Native Americans, and did not encourage a dinner.
It wasn’t until mid-1800s that historians “rediscovered” the First Thanksgiving in early Pilgrim documents and that households started practicing a combination of Thanksgiving prayer and feasting. By the time Hale was pushing to gain a unifying national day set aside as “Thanksgiving”, the holiday dinner was being practiced throughout the Union, albeit randomly.
During the Civil War, leaders in both the North and the South each issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, thanking God for their recent wins, mourning their losses, and praying for their speedy victory. Each leader was clearly speaking to his own constituents. And then, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, recognized that Hale was correct. Thanksgiving could become a unifying holiday. A shared meal could become a moment of at least temporary reconciliation.
The document of the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 which Lincoln and Seward co-wrote is one of enduring elegance. Lincoln begins by giving thanks to the “fruitful fields and healthful skies,” quite a change of tone in the midst of a bloody battle. With a solemn, even penitencial tone, he references the “sins” of the nation. And he seeks to bring together a reconciliation of America: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
Let us here slow down. What was happening in this moment?
Families were divided, life was often haphazard and both the sides of the battle had suffered tremendous losses. Lincoln makes no mention of this grim moment. Instead, Lincoln references their common home: the fields, skies, and harvest. Lincoln, here, is leaning into a land-based moment of gratitude that can, he hopes, make room for a spiritual as well as a temporal moment of peace and even reconciliation for people in both the North and the South can be a part of.
He directs the people’s gratitude, shifting it from the differing sides and expanding it to include all of the people and their common home. He is embracing the ecological, social, and ecumenical dimensions of his audience, uplifting them in an expansive gratitude.
The Proclamation was also a brilliant cultural coup for the North — there was little the South could “do” against it. Hale, Lincoln and Seward created the pretense of a present-moment unification by creating this holiday based in the supposed unification during the “First Thanksgiving.” In a time of crisis, the (white) leaders turned to a (false) origin story that suited their needs for achieving peace. They most likely did not consider if the story of the First Thanksgiving was true or not. Their purpose, in that moment, for them, was not the truth of the past — it was how to get their own people to stop fighting each other. Most likely, none of them considered Native people to be part of “their own people.” In so many ways, this cultural strategy was quite brilliant: look to a supposed perfect past, a Paradise of sorts, to create a more perfect future. Lean upon the human desire for reconciliation for an end to the violence and the coming of peace — using the “Indians and the Pilgrims” motif as a proxy for their own need for reconciliation.
The reconciliation Lincoln sought did not include reconciliation with Native peoples. Lincoln was a brilliant orator and politician, but he was not known for his compassion to Native peoples. He oversaw the growth of the railways and the Homestead Act, which both contributed to significant Native land loss. He perpetuated the attitudes and policies he inherited, including an appallingly corrupt Indian Office (the precursor to the Bureau of Indian Affairs) which blatantly stole resources that were designated to go to tribes, and oversaw the forced removal of the Navajo and Mescalaro Apaches from the New Mexico territory into reservations, a process that killed at least 2,000 people. Lincoln is also known in Indian Country for approving the hanging of the Dakota 38, the largest mass execution in US history, the day after Christmas in 1862.
By the time of the Civil War, the Pilgrims were either dead or had morphed into other New England Christian traditions. They were not around to check their descendants on the accuracy of the origin story. The Indians were still very much present, though the United States was doing its hardest to take away their rights to land and sovereignty. The 1823 Johnson v. McIntosh court case had become one of the key court cases in the creation of Indian Law, the solidification of U.S. property law, and the entrenchment of the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. and international legal courts. In the mid 1800s, the Wampanoag people were struggling with over “four score and seven years” of aggressive, dominating, and often brutal colonial/settler/U.S. economic, cultural and social policies. They were hardly in a position to correct the appearance and enactment of a national holiday.
They certainly were not consulted for how they wanted that story to be told. Indeed, America’s fragile identity was, for the white settlers, seen to be largely dependent upon the silencing of the Native voice and ongoing presence which threatened to raise the question of what constituted U.S. rights to land and what was justice. Instead, Native peoples were propped up, used as subjects in a myth of reconciliation that did not serve them in the least.
Which is one of the greatest shames and deepest sins that America has yet to reckon with.
In Part II of this article, I go deeper into our longings for harmony, reconciliation, and some of what might be possible for Thanksgiving.
We also invite people to join us to discuss these topics before Thanksgiving to brainstorm on what can you do differently this year and then again after Thanksgiving, a kind of “bone gnawing” conversation over left overs. Please sign up HERE.