As COVID changes our Thanksgiving celebrations, can we get to the roots of Thanksgiving, including the ugly histories the holiday too often hides, to create something new?
“I’m really sad, but I’m not going to come for Thanksgiving,” my mother told me over the phone the other night. I closed my eyes and sighed. I knew she was probably making the best decision. With the recent spike in Corona numbers, I was even a bit relieved. The last thing I want is for her to get sick from being in the airport on her way to visit me. Still, I was disappointed that we would not be able to share in person what has long been my family’s favorite holiday, complete with a myriad of family traditions that, since my father died, my mother and I have held together with both joy and sadness.
As thousands if not millions of families adjust their Thanksgiving plans for COVID-19, we have a unique opportunity to experiment with this holiday in new ways. Yes, there is a lot of grief around the traditions not continuing as we want them too. But let us not let this opportunity go to waste. Experimenting with this traditional holiday need not only be about smaller gatherings and online gatherings, but with a deeper reconsideration of the holiday’s origins, and what meaning we want to give it.
Given that 2020 is the 400th year anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower, this is a particularly potent year to ask these questions. The Wampanoag people, who have been living in southeastern Massachusetts for over 12,000 years, have been putting significant effort into retelling their own story as part of Plymouth 400. Thanks to their work, and the ongoing efforts of indigenous peoples across the United States and Canada, it is much easier than it used to gain a more accurate history. Indeed, this year, more accurate versions of Thanksgiving stories are hard to miss, often highlighting Wampanoag leadership, such as this recent NPR interview with Saskia and David Vanderhoop (founders of Sassafras Earth Education) and David Silverman.
When the brutal history of Thanksgiving first came to my awareness, I was horrified. I was almost as troubled that it took until I was in my 30s for me to begin to learn the real story.
At the time, I wondered, could I still even celebrate my favorite holiday?
Here is some of what I’ve learned — most of which was never taught to me directly — and some ideas for others about how to experiment in the great space opened up through inquiring into the question of the meaning of Thanksgiving.
ReMembering the History of Thanksgiving
The history of Thanksgiving is shrouded in a combination of lies and truths, in projections of what we want to believe and the loss of whom we might have become. Just under the surface of one of the most beloved and widely practiced of American traditions is a history that reflects some our deepest tensions about who we, as a people, are.
Part of the challenge — and the opportunity — of retelling the story of Thanksgiving is that we are working with a complex intersection of multiple deep cultural myths, most of which are foundational to contemporary American identity, and around which people have deep emotional attachment at personal, familial, cultural and patriotic levels. Our memories of Thanksgiving evoke felt experience.
When I teach the more accurate histories around colonization, climate change, and spirituality, which includes but is far more expansive than Thanksgiving, my students, who are all adults, do not only react intellectually, saying, “oh that is so interesting!” Instead, they usually say something like, “Oh wow. Why wasn’t I ever told? I’ve been lied to….” Some feel that they have been betrayed. Shame, anger, rage, and frustration are other common and utterly valid emotions. These feelings often intertwine with personal family dynamics, current and past relationships to certain foods, and to the land itself. It is an embodied experience.
That is why I refer to the process of learning these histories differently as “reMembering.” It is not just a “retelling.” There is a deeply somatic and emotional connection to these stories, especially to those that people learned via early childhood impressions.
Learning and engaging with the truth can make you a stronger American. The America we can create together does not have to be built on false tales of the past. We do not have to continue to make our Native neighbors invisible by telling a story about them that is so grossly inaccurate that, more often than not, they are made to feel that they do not exist. We do not have to tell a bloodless story just to make ourselves feel better. We do not need to lie to our children out of some desire for them to have a happy childhood. We can have difficult conversations — as families, as neighbors, and as fellow countrywomen. And there is more to this journey than shame, anger, blame and frustration. There is also the possibility of love, redemption, and something that resembles reconciliation.
We can love our ancestors regardless of our heritage. Indeed, the more we deepen into what happened, the more we see them as the complex human beings they were. And, as we recognize how much we can shift, the more we can be thankful for.
Indeed, let us reMember these histories as a way of practicing gratitude. Gratitude that the indigenous peoples are still here across the Americas — and especially the Wampanoag peoples, whose culture was so brutally damaged by the so-called pilgrims. Gratitude for what those of us who are settlers (forced or chosen) have learned and can continue to learn from them. Gratitude that today, we can tell a better story.
I should know. For in these tales are the ghosts of my own ancestors. The Wolcotts came over a few ships after the Mayflower, as part of the first wave of pilgrims (they would have called themselves separatists) seeking a better fortune — in addition to religious freedom. They found themselves in a world that was new to them, surrounded by peoples who did not eat, dress, cook, talk, or organize themselves the way they did. They generally saw themselves as culturally superior. Yet without their neighbors who were so very different from them, my ancestors would have died. My family, like our country, would not be here today. America owes our very existence to the first peoples who were here for at least 12,000 years, prior to them, and who shaped the land, water, and food that we continue depend upon, as well as shaping our structures of governance, our sports, and our values of freedom, hospitality, and independence.
So what happened? How can we tell the stories differently? Are there better ways to give thanks on this beloved holiday?
There are two key elements that we should mention before getting into the details of this history.
First, Thanksgiving is tapping into two deep and ancient human needs: the need to give thanks and the need to celebrate that which enables us to survive — food and land and water and whatever our understanding of Spirit is — in community. Harvest festivals and specific times to give thanks are found in almost every human culture. Indeed, I am unaware of an agrarian culture that does not have a harvest festival.
In addition to giving thanks for the harvest, many cultures will give thanks upon surviving a mortal threat, such as near starvation and winning a battle at war. This plays a critical role in what we see playing out below.
Second, at stake in this conversation is the origin story of the United States. Even more than Independence Day, this is the holiday in which our we ritually weave our family’s history and individuality into our national story. The annual ritual meal of the Thanksgiving Dinner evokes an origin story.
Our question is: what origin story are we telling? Where and when do you begin that story? From whose perspective is the story being told? The answers to all of these questions must be informed by meaning: why are we are we telling, enacting and enfolding our families into this particular origin story?
The answer to this question is determined by who we want to be as a people. I write this in hopes that we can become more honest and with greater integrity to our core values.
In considering possible starting points for the nation’s origin story, we should recall that the Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to settle in what is contemporary America.
Generally, the Thanksgiving story is told from the perspective of the pilgrims. This is a white, protestant, English/New England version of the origin story that is not the actual origin story.
There are many “first encounters.” Here are three important ones.
- 1598: The Spaniards and the first American Revolution by the Pueblo
If Thanksgiving was the “real” origin story of European encounters with Native peoples in what is now the United States of America, we would not start in New England at all. Or in the South. We would start several decades earlier, in what is now New Mexico. Spanish conquestaderos searching for gold wandered the stretch of Florida to New Mexico from 1540–1542. The ill-fated and hugely expensive venture had no cheerful stories of great meals. More than 50 years later, in 1598, the Spanish made their first settlement in New Mexico, with intention of total subjugation of the native peoples. They conducted a brutal massacre in the village of Acoma. Somehow, that village still survives: it is the oldest continually habitated village today. When I visited it several years ago, I was struck by its incredible beauty, vitality, resilience and the sense of an ancient culture that I rarely experience in the United States.
In 1610, a decade prior to the Mayflower’s landing, Pedro de Peralta established the city of Santa Fe, making it the oldest Capital City for European exploits.
In 1650, the first revolutionary war on what is now American soil against a European power was the Pueblo people against the Spaniards in what is know as the Pueblo Revolt. The Pueblo people, led by Pope (Po-pay), won control of Santa Fe.
It was not until 1692, after Pope’s death and the resulting internal power struggles amidst the Pueblo, who were coming from a myriad of communities speaking 6 different languages, that the Spaniards were able to regain control of the city.
That this is not how the United State’s origin story is usually told has a lot to do with the eventual domination of Anglo-culture, including the contentious relationship relationship between the English and the Spanish during this time, and that the U.S. government stemmed from English, not Spanish heritage. Along with this comes an assortment of assumptions and variations of cultural superiority between those of Anglo and Hispanic cultural heritage that plays itself out in the borderlands, education system and dominant cultural myths today.
Does one need to include the Pueblo Revolt in the history of American revolutionary wars? Absolutely. Would starting the story of America in New Mexico change the way we think about, say, who counts as a “real American”? Probably. Should it be part of your story of Thanksgiving? Good question. Let us put that in the, “lets talk more about that” basket, and return, at least for now, to New England.
2. 1610: English, Jamestown, and Cannibalism
The first recorded “day of thanksgiving” by the English in what is now the United States was actually in Jamestown, VA in 1610 — after the gruesome “starving times” where only 60 of the original 300 people survived. That story does not reference a joining of Indians and English: it was a religious celebration (as days of thanksgiving often were in Europe). Some speculate that we don’t tell that particular origin of Thanksgiving because it is easily associated with the cannibalism that the English practiced in order to survive that difficult year. More likely, we don’t reference that moment because the story of “The First Thanksgiving” received significant attention from the (white, protestant) descendants of the pilgrims who wanted to position themselves as the country’s cultural parentage.
3. In 1613, the Haudenosaunee peoples in New York, the Dutch, and the Two Row Wampum
As told from the perspective of the Haudenosaunee: “In 1613, the Mohawk noticed people coming into their territory unannounced…. They spoke a strange language…had hair on their faces… and needed a place to live.” The Mohawk returned to the rest of their Confederacy, who held a meeting, and decided that these strangers needed to be met by a delegation. Eventually, after many long and difficult conversations, they agreed to a treaty between the Haudenosaunee, sometimes known as the Six Nations of the Iroquois, and the Dutch. This treaty was made in the diplomatic tradition of the ruling cultural political power of the land: the wampum belts used by the Haudenosaunee and other nations of the north eastern woodlands. There was also a written treaty (in Dutch) and an agreement of friendship between the two nations that included the Silver Covenant Chain of Friendship.
The Two Row Wampum is the first international diplomatic treaty between the first nations and the Europeans, and is largely held to the be amongst the most important agreements in the relationship between the two cultures.
Which of these stories, if any, should be included in our thanksgiving story?
This is an important question. Let us, as a people, keep exploring that. But for now, I focus on the narrower thread of Thanksgiving, and the interactions between the Wampanoag and the English.
Europeans did not “discover” America. Indigenous people have lived, cared for, shaped and altered this continent’s geography for over 12,000 years. A key part of telling the story differently is acknowledging the long, long history of harvest festivals, spiritual traditions and practices, politics, complex governance systems, sophisticated agricultural, housing, educational systems, and transportation systems, and the regenerative land cultivation that happened for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. In the past four hundred years of western “civilization,” most if not all of these systems have become unstable. The extent to which our “civilization” is actually part of the problem is a question we might want to consider.
Having established the long history that came prior to this moment it is worth ReMembering that the pilgrims were hardly the first Europeans to engage with the Wampanoag people.
In 1604, an English explorer captured Tisquantum, who came to be known as Squanto, and brought him and several others to England, where he and others stayed and learned English, returning in 1614. Not long after his return, he was kidnapped along with twenty Wampanoag men from Patuxet (now Plymouth) and seven more from Nauset on Cape Cod to sell them as slaves in Spain. Amazingly, Tisquantum escaped and found refuge in a monastery. When he finally returned home in 1619, he found his entire village decimated by smallpox. He then went to live amongst the Wampanoag near Plimouth. He was there when the pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Not only did he know the language of the settlers, but he and others knew the people who organized the expedition itself from his time living in England.
Which is to say, the native peoples had already had significant and often wrenching experiences with Europeans by the time the Mayflower arrived. (It did not actually land on Plymouth rock — that seems to be a story largely concocted for tourists.) Squanto would have shared at least some of his own story, and others knew other stories.
By the time the pilgrims set foot on this soil, the native people were already dealing with the impact of European contact: small pox, slavery, international voyages, complex relationships and resulting shifts in intertribal politics, most of which the English did not understand. (For anyone teaching this history, the history of smallpox is critical — and makes a powerful link to contemporary ways disease shifts socio-economic-political roles). The “Indians” were no more one group of people than the Scots considered themselves part of “Great Britain” prior to when the English (essentially) invaded Scotland and slowly but surely took over the land.
The “first” feast: food, dance and the hope of peace
After an initially rough year, when roughly half of their original band of 102 people died, the English had a moderately successful harvest, thanks not least to what they learned from Squanto and others about planting what the English referred to as “Indian corn.”
In 1621, Edward Winslow wrote a letter to England, where he describes a successful harvest followed by a three-day gathering that was attended by 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoag would have doubled if not tripled the number of settlers there gathered. The Native people brought deer and possibly other game; the settlers brought the food that the Natives had taught them to plant. There are no records of any women or children present. It was not a family gathering.
Most likely the Wampanoag sachem, or chief, Massosoit, had already completed their own harvest and were doing some diplomatic visits. Educator and storyteller Perry Ground, from the Onondaga nation, says that earlier that winter, the people of Plimoth had stolen corn that was buried by the Patuxet people when they were starving; the governor of Plimoth had subsequently apologized to Massasoit and the sachem forgave him — but wanted what today we might call “payback.” The settlers paid their debt to the Wampanoag, in addition to the agreement of an initial peace treaty with the Wampanoag. The peace treaty was initiated by the Wampanoag leader Ousamequin, not because he was particularly friendly to the English, but because he saw that an alliance with the English was an opportunity to fend off his own tribal rebels at a time when his people were being decimated by the small pox disease. One should never underestimate the extent to which that plague shifted America. According to Ground, the three-day feast would have strengthened their trust.
As David Silverman, author of This land is their land: the Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth colony and the troubled history of Thanksgiving, explains, the peace treaty was consistently tested by the English via continual land expansion and exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land for 50 years. Then tensions erupted into King Philip’s War (or the Great Narragansett War), a conflict which devastated the Wampanoag.
The term, the “thanksgiving feast” was not used in any of the correspondence about this gathering. And never, ever, did the Native people, be they Wampanoag or others, concede to colonialism.
There is no evidence that they ate turkey, although the letter does reference venison, waterfowl and corn.
As Linda Coombs, Wampanoag historian and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), on Martha’s Vineyard, says, “There was an event that happened in 1621, but the whole story about what occurred on that first Thanksgiving was a myth created to make white people feel comfortable.”
And that peace treaty? Well. Like so many other treaties, it was sorely tested….
The second “celebration”, and a horrific use of the word “Thanksgiving”
Sixteen years later, on May 26, 1637, in what is now Mystic, Connecticut, we see the use of the term “thanksgiving” in an entirely horrific way. Relationships between indigenous peoples and settlers in the area were tense. The Pequot people captured and killed an Englishman whom they suspected was kidnapping their women and children. Rather than fighting against the well-respected Pequot warriors, several English planned a stealth attack on the pre-dawn hours of the morning of their annual multi-day Green Corn Festival.
They shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, women and children. William Bradford, in his famous History of the Plymouth Plantation, attributed the “success” of the Pequot massacre to receiving God’s favor:
“Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”
The following day, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop gave gratitude for God’s destruction of the Pequot village by declaring a “day of thanksgiving… in which this day forth shall be a day of celebration and Thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” A feast was held. Some say the settlers continued to “give thanks” after every significant slaughter and destruction of an Indian village.
These were two very different moments in our country’s history. The first one seems to symbolize what was possible: that two different cultures, both in positions of relative weakness, could grow stronger together, and that in doing so, they could dance together. The other is of stealth, cruelty and violence, and the clear belief in a God that favored violence, not making peace. Both stories are deeply part of our nation’s spiritual history. Both express something those who are now described to be amidst the founders of the country held dear: a desire for learning and togetherness, and a desire to conquest, subdue, and control a continent and its people. Both mutuality and conquest can be forms of the survival of one group — but only one of them enables the flourishing of everyone and of the land.
For those of us interested in retelling these stories, we should not only choose the story we like, but rather recall both stories as part of this country’s complex and often ugly relationship with the people who were here first.
Thanksgiving as a form of white protestant cultural superiority
The story continued to evolve.
In 1769, pilgrim descendants living in Plimouth felt like their cultural authority was slipping away. They started to plant the seeds of this idea that the pilgrims were the fathers of America. Rev Alexander Young published a piece which mentioned the dinner as a footnote. People noticed the footnote, which said that “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.” Inspired, people began to celebrate it more widely.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, George Washington made the initial Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1789. So far as I can tell, it was not intended to celebrate the genocide against the Indians, but to honor the survival of the fledgling and still insecure nation, with imperialistic tendencies baked deep into its bones.
Washington marked November 26 as the day it was to be celebrated. Washington had long been a fan of “Thank Days” and issued them to be celebrated after winning a major battle (usually against the British, but I would not be surprised if he issued them after winning against the Indians as well). Most likely, he would have associated “Thank Days” with the English and wider European heritage of giving thanks to God, which was often a solemn, quiet, and prayer-filled occasion.
Even then, it was not necessarily associated with turkeys.
Thanksgiving as a form of enabling peace
In 1861, Confederate president Jefferson Davis called for a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of the month for his troops, for solemn reflection and prayer.
Two years later, in 1863, Union president Abraham Lincoln issued an official proclamation that Thanksgiving would be a day of peace during the Civil War, at a time when families were torn apart over deep divisions around race, economics, and the future of the country. In this, he was inspired by and directly borrowed from George Washington’s proclamation nearly a century earlier. Many soldiers ate their ‘thanksgiving meal’ (which did not necessarily include better rations than usual) in the field. It is unclear if he was also borrowing the idea from his confederate rival.
Journalist and editor of a popular woman’s magazine, Sally Josepha Hale, had been advocating for a nationally celebrated Day of Thanksgiving for several decades prior to the civil war. She also had strong anti-slavery writings, which angered the southern leaders — as did the holiday’s association with the pilgrims. The South did not want to cede the country’s origins to the northern pilgrims. Especially since it was inaccurate.
Lincoln’s own proclamation was issued in part because of the cunning statesmanship of William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, who saw an opportunity to re-unite the country by issuing a national declaration for a holiday that was celebrated (more or less) the same, throughout the country
The document of the Thanksgiving Proclamation which the two men wrote is one of enduring elegance that gives thanks to the “fruitful fields and healthful skies” as well as, with a solemn, even penitence tone, admitting to the “sins” of the nation. And of course, that critical line at the moment of the Civil War which acknowledges one country, not two: “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.”
Reflecting on this Thanksgiving Proclamation now, I wonder if adding some greater solemnity to contemporary Thanksgiving celebrations, admitting the “sins” of our past as well as our continued inabilities to confront both the legacies of colonization (from racism to indigenous genocide to climate change) and the deep divides made apparent in this past presidential election earlier this month.
Perhaps it is time to return to some of the solemnity of the holiday, to give ourselves the emotional space to be with and through the ugly histories, as well as our deep need to give thanks.
At last: the Turkey
How could we talk about this holiday without speculating on the role of the turkey? Shortly after issuing his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Abe Lincoln hosted his Thanksgiving Dinner at the white house — it featured the turkey. Most likely, the turkey had featured in many people’s thanksgiving gatherings prior to this moment. Several factors influenced this, including that the turkey is a native bird to North America, it is plentiful (some historians suggest there were 10 million turkeys here on first contact with Europeans), it was big enough to feed a family and some friends. Charles Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol immortalized the turkey as part a special meal. Yet most historians agree that it was a woman working to shape American culture, Sarah Josepha Hale, whom I mentioned above as a major campaigner for Thanksgiving as a national holiday, featured an entire chapter of her popular novel Northwood on the New England Thanksgiving, in which she included a turkey, as well as resulting cookbooks picked up by housewives across the country, that shaped the thanksgiving feast itself.
And let’s not forget racism
After the Civil War, the meaning of the holiday continued to evolve. Really, as a way of defining U.S. culture, it was As Silverman argues, racial politics played a significant role in the rise of the holiday’s popularity. In the late 19th century, when the white Protestant culture of the United States were displeased with the rising European immigrants who were Jewish and Catholic, the story enabled them to assert their cultural authority over newcomers — a key part of the myth being that the Indians seemed to be welcoming the Pilgrims and inviting them to take over the land. This would have been impossible earlier in the nation’s history: during the process of “westward expansion”, when the U.S. military was constantly loosing battles to the indigenous peoples who were fighting for their homeland and their way of life, the notion of Indian acquiescence to the colonial venture would have been impossible.
As Silverman writes, “the Thanksgiving myth allowed New Englanders to create this idea that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country, having nothing to do with the Indian wars and slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it.”
This year, leaders in the Great Plains Action Society, are offering a “Truthsgiving” gathering. In their articulation of the importance of decolonizing this holiday, they write: To celebrate the current Thanksgiving mythology is to celebrate land theft through ethnic cleansing and enslavement. It is masked recognition that this country was founded on the actions of generations of settler-vigilantes and colonial-militias who depended on the genocide of Native American Indigenous Peoples and the enslavement of African Peoples to steal land, the legacy of which is still felt today.
Um, so now what? Can we still celebrate Thanksgiving?
Many people don’t.
For many, Thanksgiving is a Day of Mourning. Since 1970, some Native people have been holding protests and ceremonies near Plimoth Rock in honor of the many cultures, peoples, languages, and others who have died. Not just in New England, but in other parts of Indian Country as well.
I do not doubt that we need a National Day of Mourning for the genocide of indigenous peoples. And another one for the enslavement of African peoples. And another one for the damage we continually inflict upon this precious land and water. We are a country that, especially in recent years, has sidestepped our need for mourning: for atonement.
It’s hard to create rituals of atonement when you don’t admit something is wrong.
We also need a time when we can gather together with our family, neighbors and be in community together and to share food together and give thanks. Abe Lincoln was correct: we need to reach across the divisions in our families and come together in order to forge a path of peace. That was true in the Civil War and it is still true today.
But today, the divisions before us are very much tied to how we relate to our past as well as how we are with our present. Key to this process is the historical retelling of our origin stories.
What I hope is clear by this point is that to continue to tell the false story of Thanksgiving is morally wrong. To give thanks for the slaughter of thousands (and millions, if we entire the entire genocide in north and south America) and the continued attempts at cultural nihilation is akin to evil, and a horrific use of our God-given capacity for gratitude.
But if we tell fuller truths about these stories, can we still find a way to celebrate this food, this land, and the peoples who taught the English how to survive here?
It has been — and only been — my relationship to indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada that has enabled me to give a tentative “yes” to this question. For several years I drew close to some of the local indigenous harvest celebrations where I lived in New York, as well as some of the local anti-pipeline movements spearheaded by indigenous leadership. Continuing to give thanks to food and to Earth is only possible if we are keeping pipelines out of the ground, stopping polluting waterways and in other ways addressing the many ramifications of the evils of colonization, epitomized in the history of the Doctrine of Discovery.
A leader in the Turkey Clan of the Lenape People in New York was one of the first people to show me, through example, the importance of telling new stories. He would not celebrate ‘my’ Thanksgiving. But he would join in intercultural, multi-faith celebrations of the Harvest and of giving Thanks. We all need to give thanks, he would tell me. And he would share some of his people’s traditional stories for this time of year. Every time I heard them, I wondered if my ancestors had listened to them. I felt such gratitude that, despite everything, some of those stories had survived. And, somehow, we get to share them. Given where we both come from, that is not guaranteed.
One of my friends and colleagues, Krissy Hill, a Circle Keeper, educator, and member of the Tuscarora Nation, and I have been coming up with some suggestions to enable us to go towards greater truth — as part of a greater thanks-giving. Keep in mind that given how stressed many families are with COVID-related concerns, lead with tenderness.
- Stop the harm: Don’t tell the false stories. This includes avoiding dressing up as Indians and Puritans in the classic thanksgiving pageant…. Especially if that pageant doesn’t portray the complex political realities of the time.
- Do a land acknowledgement at your Thanksgiving table. Here’s a map, one (of many) ways to find out who was on the land you were on before you were. If you are new to land acknowledgement, here is a useful guide by the Native Governance Center.
- Indigenous peoples are still here.This is not just about better histories. It is also very much about the present. Look for local groups and movements and what issues are they prioritizing in your area.
- Learn who the indigenous peoples are not just where you live now, but in your family history, and your own family’s role, or the role of your faith community, in the larger history of colonization of America.
- Share the story of genocide alongside the story of cultures coming together. Thanksgiving historically is a time for solemnity as part of celebration — it can go alongside football, as well. As part of your preparations, consider learning more about the Wampanoag people, and listen to them tell some of their own stories.
- Engage with the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee — or at least part of it — to incorporate into your Thanksgiving ritual. As the Haudenosaunee tradition teaches, peace can only arise out of thanksgiving.
- Eat local food and find out about the history of the foods on your table. What is the cultural history of the food? Common Thanksgiving foods are all native to this land. They all have a myriad stories and mythologies that you (and your children) can learn and share.
- There are many more resources for kids than there used to be. Barnicle and Husk is a children’s book about the Wampanoag people and early New England history, crafted by them themselves.
- How much more can you learn, and how deep are you willing to go in taking off your own blinders? I offer courses connecting the Doctrine of Discovery, colonization, climate change, family histories and spirituality, as well as in retelling our origin stories. I am one of many: more and more people are finding ways of engaging with these questions.
- Solidarity: political, economic, mutual aid…. There are so many ways to be in solidarity, especially around supporting indigenous sovereignty. And there is so much to celebrate — such as the story of the Wampanoag recovering their language.
- Thanksgiving is about family. So go deeper into your own family histories. What is your relationship to your own ancestors? What land were they indigenous to? Do you have land-based practices in your faith tradition that can be bridges to land-based practices of people on this continent? In my teaching, I find that this is, consistently, a powerful source of healing.
- Are there new rituals that you can create? If you are on zoom for this holiday, you might want to invite everyone to light a candle in honor of those Native peoples who died during the conquest of this land; and another candle in honor of those who survive and are still with us. If your people have (also) survived famine, plagues, and/or genocide, you may light a candle in honor of your own ancestors, and their journeys that enabled you to be in this place. As many of the images commonly associated with “pilgrims and indians” are inaccurate, you might want to check out the work of Kent Monkman.
- Food Fables and Indigenous Food Sovereignty: Native Chef Sean Sherman and author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen says in a recent Time Magazine article, indigenous foods such as turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice and and the like are indigenous. Can you buy from indigenous growers? Find out more about and support efforts towards indigenous food sovereignty? The film “Gather” is a good documentary on spirituality, food, culture, and politics around food sovereignty.
- What restorative practices can you be a part of?
For those of you working on telling a different story about Thanksgiving, here is a summary of some key dynamic factors you might want to include, based on what is above.
- This is not about “telling a different story” about Thanksgiving. This is the work of ReMembering and re-weaving our familial and national stories together into a better fabric for all. Compassion, as well as truthfulness, is needed for yourself and your family.
- Indigenous peoples were here long before Europeans were. Their traditions and practices shaped European traditions and practices.
- The pilgrims were not first. White, protestant, northeastern culture need not be the dominant culture of America.
- Indigenous people from the northeast woodlands — namely Squanto and several others — had lived, traveled, and been enslaved multiple times in England and Europe prior to when the English Pilgrims came to America.
- European survival depended upon the indigenous generosity and willingness to teach them their ways. America is only here because those first settlers were willing and able to learn — if only briefly — from indigenous peoples.
- There are two feasts which we can think of as being about Thanksgiving.
- 1621: a three day festival, most likely celebrating both the harvest and a peace treaty. That peace treaty was made for the benefit of the local Wampanoag peoples and inter-tribal politics… it was not just about the settlers. (Decentralize the role of the white settlers in this wider political context dominated by indigenous inter-tribal relationships.) The title “Thanksgiving” was not given.
- 1637: a brutal massacre of 700 people after which a day of “Thanskgiving” was proclaimed.
- George Washington wanted to have a national day of Thanksgiving early on in his presidency; the idea never made it past the states-rights coalitions.
- The idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was continually pushed and promoted by a prominent female thought leader, Sarah Josepha Hale, for decades before it became a thing. She also helped bring the Turkey to the center of the table.
- Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State, Seward, penned the Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863. It was a solemn as well as a joyous holiday designed to unify a country where families were fighting one another.
FOR so many of us, COVID-19 has utterly disrupted our 2020 Thanksgiving holiday. Let us not let this disruption be for nothing. Let us get to the roots of who we are, where we come from, and what we want this holiday to mean.
At a time when our country is very divided, we need shared moments of giving thanks together. Indeed, making peace can only really happen from a foundation of gratitude. That gratitude needs to stem from truthfulness.
Perhaps you will join me in deep gratitude that this Thanksgiving, we do not have to continue to tell false stories. We can prepare the table for a better set of relationships in the years to come.