Yesterday in 2007: Misguided Thanks

Here’s a little something I wrote on November 20, 2007, on my original blog, Peaceful Ponderings, regarding the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States:

Americans are getting prepared, baking pies, roasting turkeys, all in anticipation of a holiday that all can take part in, religion aside. This Thursday will mark the 387th Thanksgiving in the United States of America. Many of us think of this day as a time for friends and family to get together to eat lots of food, drink lots of wine and show how grateful they are to have each other in their lives. Others remember the tale we were told as children about the Pilgrims sitting down with the Native Americans in colonial America, grateful for the Natives’ help in the New World. I would venture a guess that very few actually know or remember the history that actually took place nearly four centuries ago on the east coast of this continent – if we did, maybe we wouldn’t be too keen on celebrating at all.

How many Native Americans do you know today? If you are like me, none; unsurprising considering their dwindling numbers. Looking back there is a time we can point to and say, “That’s when their population truly started to fall.” The year was 1620, when religious fugitives arrived at Plymouth Rock from England, eager to make a home and not caring whose land they might be overtaking to do so. The survivors of the genocide that started all those years ago are not as quick to forget history as the rest of us.

In fact, every year on Thanksgiving a gathering takes place in Massachusetts, overlooking Plymouth Rock, to mourn ancestors who tried to do good to others, only to have it backfire one hundred fold not too long after. Yes, the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to plant, and yes they might have even celebrated their crops together, but the sit-down was not a grateful, happy feast, but a discussion of land disputes that eventually, not too long thereafter, erupted into bloody battles and millions of deaths on the side of the Natives. In fact, the small hill where the annual gathering takes place now boasts a plaque that reads: “Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.”

Mahtowin Munro of United American Indians of New England has said, “We want the public to see that not everybody agrees with the celebration of Thanksgiving” (www.commondreams.org). Instead of Thanksgiving, the Native American population refers to this holiday as The National Day of Mourning. Telling, no? It was launched in 1970 after Frank B. Wamsutta, the Wampanoag leader, was invited to a 350th anniversary dinner in celebration of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock – the Wampanoags were the tribe that greeted and helped the Pilgrims upon their arrival. Wamsutta’s speech at the dinner was not what was expected, referring to the so-called Thanksgiving as “the beginning of the end.” If the relatives of the Native Americans that have been persecuted and murdered since the English have arrived to steal their land are protesting this holiday, why, I wonder, are we celebrating?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving just as much as the next person, but I find it unfortunate, hypocritical and disgusting that we are not acknowledging the actual history of the holiday when we sit down at our dinner tables. To be sure, Americans have a funny way about forgetting things that are not pleasant. Take Columbus Day, for example; another ludicrous holiday dedicated to a man who not only discovered a Caribbean island as opposed to America, but also slaughtered and enslaved thousands of innocent, generous Arawak people. According to an excerpt from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Columbus wrote in his log, “They would make fine servants….  With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” He sought gold and was eager to oppress these people to get what he wanted. Excellent man! Such a cause for celebration, I should say! I won’t go into more detail here, but the atrocities Columbus committed for plentiful and it honestly boggles my mind like nothing else that we should still have a day dedicated to him in our calendar.

Speaking with a federal employee the other day, I made mention of Thanksgiving as a celebration of Native American genocide (I suppose I am a little bitter and cynical about the matter). He responded that those murders only occurred after the first Thanksgiving, so there is no harm in celebrating. I would have to disagree. By disregarding what the Pilgrims eventually were guilty of, we are taking part in a revised history; we are perpetuating a false story that had negative outcomes for millions of people – the true Americans who were here before any of us. Should we celebrate the beginning of any war thought to be fought justly, like Vietnam or Iraq, before thousands of innocent lives were lost? Should we memorialize certain persons for being great leaders, like Hitler or Ho Chi Minh, and put the atrocities they caused out of our minds? When it comes to history, I do not see how we can pick and choose what to remember and believe. It’s all there. It all happened.

This year when you sit down to turkey or tofurkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, remember those who died for their generosity nearly four hundred years ago. When you are going around the table, giving thanks for shelter, food, clothing, and security, remember those who lost it all after teaching others how to provide those necessities for themselves. To be sure, think of those around the world who still don’t have the necessities; the three billion+ who are hungry, cold and homeless in America, Africa, Europe, Asia…everywhere. Just because we have conveniently forgotten about genocides of the past, covering them up and refusing to call them by what they are, does not mean we should or will do the same today. Think of Darfur. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Stand up. Speak out. Make a difference.

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