“I’m not a fan of Thanksgiving because it’s a racist holiday.”
The first time I ever heard an opinion like this one was at Montevallo, and up until then, I had never really considered Thanksgiving a controversial holiday.
There is nothing wrong with the spirit of gladness that surrounds Thanksgiving, and most cultures celebrate some form of an annual harvest festival. The problem with the Thanksgiving tradition lies entirely in that little story about the pilgrims and natives: a story that allows people to ignore what actually happened.
Going through elementary school I participated in the same ritualistic Thanksgiving acts that I expect most of my readers went through. I dressed up like a pilgrim or Native American and learned from picture books about how Squanto was the Pilgrims’ best friend. It was only later that I found it strange that Thanksgiving painted such a rosy picture when most of history showed Europeans who came to the continent either killed, enslaved or swindled the natives for their own profit.
I’m not a history major, and I won’t claim to be an expert on what exactly happened on that day, but looking back at the way that I remember learning about Thanksgiving, the holiday had a magical quality to it. For one day, apparently, everyone put aside their differences, the pilgrims invited their “savage” neighbors to dine with them and it was all hunky-dory.
Then shortly after that it all went sideways.
In 1675, around 50 years after the date of the proposed “first Thanksgiving,” a war broke out between the New England colonist and the Wampanoag tribe, the same tribe that had aided the pilgrims.
Here are the facts, cold and unrelenting: before the U.S. was formed European settlers engaged in genocide against the native populace, and after the U.S. was formed, Americans continued that genocide. Most Americans don’t want to admit that the U.S. never actually stopped killing off Native Americans. After the government graciously allowed Native Americans to live on the land that no else wanted, they decided to “help” them in the 1800s by creating boarding schools designed to assimilate Native Americans into European-American culture. To put it in layman’s terms, they weren’t considered appropriate for the culture and needed to change to be a part of it.
These boarding schools were part of an attempt to erase Native American culture, thus killing it off, but a far less subtle method were the Native American reservations. On these reservations, the people live in poverty. An article in The Atlantic put it this way: “This is the grinding poverty on some of America’s Indian reservations, many of which resemble nothing so much as small third-world countries in the middle of the wealthiest nation on earth.”
Now, as bad as all of this is, it doesn’t necessarily seem to have an immediate connection to the first Thanksgiving. But there is one. When the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, they became the first permanent settlers in the New England area, something that never would have happened without aid from the Wampanoag tribe whom a generation later the colonist almost wiped out.
The story of the first Thanksgiving is meant to show the way that the colonists thrived after all of their struggles and how the two groups’ friendship saved the Pilgrims, but it could also be said that the story shows how the natives saved their enemy. And history itself shows the thanks that they got for it.
The sad truth is that ignoring past atrocities committed against people and groups is an American tradition.
No one likes to talk about slavery and racism, internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII, the genocide of the natives or the exploitation of various minority groups.
But we need to talk about these things.
America may be the land of the free, but it was built on the backs of slaves and carved out with the blood of natives. The history of this country is a dark one, and it is far past time that we as a nation acknowledged that.
This isn’t about guilt. Guilt comes and goes, and nothing can be done to balance the scales to eliminate it entirely. African Americans and Native Americans are still struggling from the wrongs done to them in the past, and the current travesties they face in the present. The truth is the oppression never stopped, and as long this nation refuses to acknowledge and accept the wrongs that it has committed, then it is impossible for the necessary healing process to take place.
So, this Thanksgiving when you sit down with your family to eat a delicious meal of ham, turkey, mac and cheese, buttered rolls and whatever else, be thankful for what you have, but don’t forget the innocent blood that was shed to get it.