Ah, Thanksgiving — Is It For Our Ancestors, Or in Spite of Them?
If we’re going to be consistent and dismantle every national holiday whose roots are linked with ancestral sins, Thanksgiving needs to be on the hit list.
It isn’t, and it won’t be, which illustrates again our complex relationship with the problematic parts of America’s past.
Our ancestors, the ones who founded and shaped the country, did some abhorrent things. Start with slavery and the appropriation of the land on which “we” live from people who lived on it for hundreds of years before us.
That’s where Thanksgiving comes in. It was 400 years ago Thursday, by standard historical accounts, that a diverse group of British settlers known as the Pilgrims were said to have marked their first successful harvest with a festive celebration to which they invited members of the Wampanoag tribe that had helped them plant and nurture that life-saving harvest.
And yup, the image of happy and grateful Pilgrims warmly chatting with the Wampanoags over a turkey dinner makes for a heartwarming visual. It just may take some liberties with actual events.
For starters, the fundamentalist Pilgrims who comprised about half the 102 travelers on the Mayflower were not supposed to be happy about anything. They also would have been loath to dine with heathens.
Many Wampanoags note that while they did provide some agricultural tips to the new arrivals, the two groups had at best an uneasy relationship, neither quite sure what the other intended.
The starkest speculation is that those Wampanoags at the harvest feast may have shown up armed, because they were pretty sure the Pilgrims, now with food security and thus a stronger territorial foothold, planned to attack them.
Whatever the dynamic 400 years ago, subsequent history is clear. More settlers arrived and gradually forced all tribes off their ancestral land, mostly herding them onto reservations.
At best it’s depressing. At worst it’s genocide.
Majority America may acknowledge that. But over these last 400 years there’s also been the unspoken rationalization that this is how history works, and that once “we” took the land, we knew what to do with it. We built it into the most powerful and advanced nation on the planet.
That is to say, it wasn’t pretty, but there’s no need to dwell on it. Besides, this thinking goes, we who are here today aren’t the ones who did it, the same way no one alive today owned slaves.
Welcome to one of America’s most insidious moral minefields.
Vastly oversimplified, one side says there’s no justification, and little practical value, in forcing people to defend the actions and sins of their ancestors. The solution is to correct the bad behavior and move on.
The other side says that’s fine but insufficient. Elements of those bad attitudes remain, as do the consequences of the original sins. Both need to be addressed if we are ever to get to the “liberty and justice for all” part of the American promise.
It’s a conversation we’ve held for most of America’s lifetime, long a whisper and then louder over the past several decades. Just in the last couple of years we’ve seen tangible consequences, like the removal of Confederate statues and an often stark revision in our regard for Christopher Columbus, which in turn has caused communities and organizations to pull back from Columbus Day.
If Columbus Day has been tainted because of its links to the genocide of Native Americans, then logic says Thanksgiving should be in those same crosshairs, because at the very least the traditional view of harmonious détente badly misrepresents the true intentions of English settlers.
That’s why the Wampanoags and other tribes think Thanksgiving should be redesignated a “national day of mourning.”
In any case, the actions of our ancestors don’t go away, which is why we will keep wrestling with the larger question: What we should do about them?
One response in recent years has been some schools shifting to what they consider a more honest, and darker, version of our history. That move has sparked enough controversy that it became a central issue in this month’s Virginia gubernatorial election. Expect it to have equal prominence in future elections.
However that eventually evolves, it’s unlikely that Thanksgiving will become a casualty. It may be our favorite national holiday, four or five days when families eat, drink, shop, watch the parade and watch football together. For a solid majority of America, it’s a group hug.
From that perspective, it’s probably close to what President Abraham Lincoln had in mind in 1863 when he declared the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday. Just months after he struck down one of our ancestors’ most egregious sins, slavery, he found a way to say we’ve still got plenty for which to be thankful.