184 Thanksgiving Reflections

We cringe at the way that colonists later celebrated the deaths of almost a thousand indigenous people through additional thanksgiving feasts, wince to hear from the mouths of African Americans how their families were stolen from their homes and dragged to this country in chains, writhe to see the way many humans in our country are still striving to obtain rights and obtain the ability to just be heard.

By Nyasha Stowell

As we gather, or in this case don’t gather, for Thanksgiving around a table this year, I wonder what does it mean to us? Is it just the beginning of another holiday season? The passage of time marked by the winding down of another year? A celebration of colonization? Perhaps a bit of all those things.

A teaspoon of being thankful to be here, when there are more than 250,000 Americans whose lives have been ended by a virus allowed to run rampant. A pinch of appreciation for another year on this planet and the lessons we’ve learned. Just a smidge of that awkward feeling, celebrating some “historical event” very clearly written from a fully European perspective.

Thanksgiving curriculum back in the 90’s was an over simplified affair. Creating some black pilgrim hats with shiny buckles out of construction paper, the idea of “Indians” in feather headbands and deer skin clothes, this strange mythology of white people saved by indigenous allies who didn’t want to see them starve, it all smacks now as propaganda taught to children. Fake news. Since the 90’s, I’ve learned a lot more about that first Thanksgiving. It’s not really the wholesome illustrated book depiction I grew up with.

A painting of Thanksgiving in Plymouth by Jennie Augusta with White settlers sitting around a table, a woman bending to attend to her baby in a crib while Native Americans look on in the background.
Thanksgiving in Plymouth By Jennie Augusta Brownscombe National Museum of Women in the Arts

Now, what does that really mean? Should we shut down Thanksgiving? Banish a holiday that continues to celebrate some mythology connected to European exceptionalism, while ignoring the inconvenient truths of the time period? Remove the only thing left standing in the way of Christmas music’s slow takeover of the entire year? I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer, although I seriously hope that schools now have curriculum that presents a far less fictional view of that moment in history.

Can we salvage something of Thanksgiving from the mishmash of European idealism and actually focus our attention elsewhere? Should we even do so? Would that step only serve to further silence the innate issues that come along with the holiday’s premise?

Not questions I think anyone really wants to answer, or at least any reasonably guilty European descendant. It’s a question that requires actually looking to the real story of Thanksgiving and wallowing just a little in our own discomfort. And of course, since no one alive today was there, and the “new world” seems to have an unfortunate knack for silencing indigenous voices, there really isn’t a clear view of the real story in any case. 

The general consensus, if you look to a string of European writers (irony? I think not) who come up on Google when you search out the true story of Thanksgiving, is that the Plymouth Colony was having a three day celebratory feast and that when the indigenous Wampanoag tribe heard them making a ruckus by shooting off guns they arrived either in concern that there was some kind of conflict (the tribe having recently made an alliance with the settlers) or perhaps just to stare at these Europeans and their recklessly wasteful actions (You know, people only too aware of their limited resources, shooting guns into the air. Does it get more American than that?) and then stayed on to enjoy the party. In any case, not really the warm and fuzzy story taught to me as a child.

We have in this country an enduring paradox between what we enjoy hearing and reality that really strives to paint every aspect of life. Part of the reason behind this is the simple silencing of those we’d rather not hear. We cringe at the way that colonists later celebrated the deaths of almost a thousand indigenous people through additional thanksgiving feasts, wince to hear from the mouths of African Americans how their families were stolen from their homes and dragged to this country in chains, writhe to see the way many humans in our country are still striving to obtain rights and obtain the ability to just be heard. (Or even some of us just so against the fact of a pandemic in this country, that we’re willing to risk other’s lives and make the issue of wearing masks a literal hill to die on.)

The basest and most simplified versions of history are the ones that are easiest to cling to since they’re the ones that paint our ancestors best. That paint us best. But just because something feels good, makes us feel less guilt, less pain, less worry, doesn’t make it right.

So when you sit down to Thanksgiving this year (please, for the love of everyone in your life, for your grandmother, for your nieces and nephews, for the poor little old lady down the street, within your own household and without a single guest more, unless they are attending through the miracle that is technology), reflection is necessary.

I don’t know what the answer is. I am not even sure what it is we ought to be reflecting on. But maybe if we just think about something more than the gravy and turkey on the table in front of us, we’ll do something good for our world.

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