Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving in America? How many of us know what happened leading up to the first Thanksgiving? Why are so many of us ignorant to the fact that Thanksgiving was not meant to be about family and friends gathering for turkey, but about ethnocentric nationalism, genocide and civil religiosity? What does all this tell us about how we view our history and our current role in the world?
Here is what some textbooks tell American children about Thanksgiving:
“After some exploring, the Pilgrims chose the land around Plymouth Harbor for their settlement. Unfortunately, they had arrived in December and were not prepared for the New England winter. However, they were aided by friendly Indians, who gave them food and showed them how to grow corn. When warm weather came, the colonists planted, fished, hunted, and prepared themselves for the next winter. After harvesting their first crop, they and their Indian friends celebrated the first Thanksgiving. – The American Tradition
Among other things, this account speaks nothing of the plagues the Europeans brought with them which killed thousands of natives. Here’s James Loewen:
“The summer after the Pilgrims landed, they sent two envoys on a diplomatic mission to treat with Massasoit, a famous chief encamped some 40 miles away at what is now Warren, Rhode Island. The envoys discovered and described a scene of absolute havoc. Villages lay in ruins because there was no one to tend them. The ground was strewn with the skulls and the bones of thousands of Indians who had died and none was left to bury them.
“John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, called the plague ‘miraculous.’ To a friend in England in 1634, he wrote, ‘But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect….’
“Thanksgiving is full of (such) embarrassing facts. The Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Our modern celebrations date back only to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition; no one even called them “Pilgrims” until the 1870s. Plymouth Rock achieved ichnographic status only in the nineteenth century, when some enterprising residents of the town moved it down to the water so its significance as the “holy soil” the Pilgrims first touched might seem more plausible. The Rock has become a shrine, the Mayflower Compact a sacred text, and our textbooks play the same function as the Anglican BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, teaching us the rudiments of the civil religion of Thanksgiving.” – James Loewen