The Land Where Thanksgiving Was Invented

Thanksgiving card illustration, 2012

“Today is a time of celebrating for you…but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look upon what happened to my People…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans…Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers…little knowing that…before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.
—Frank James, Thanksgiving speech censored by Massachusetts Department of Commerce on 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, 1970

It’s Thanksgiving today and once again I’m stymied about what to write about what was once my favorite holiday. Growing up in New England where the first Thanksgiving happened, literally traveling “over the river and through the woods” of Vermont to get to Grandma’s house, partaking of a wondrous traditional feast surrounded by my family — what could be better?

But since those grade school days when I first heard the story of the “Pilgrim fathers” landing on a wild and rocky shore in a “howling wilderness,” braving their first terrible winter with the help of “friendly Indians,” I’ve learned a few things that make it hard to take this holiday as a simple celebration of gratitude based in a happy historical tradition.

So where to start?

Is it with the mythic quality of the story itself, which James Lowen points out in Lies My Teacher Taught Me, is touted as the “origin myth” of the U.S., ignoring much of the real history? For example, rather than a total wilderness, the Pilgrims landed near Pawtuxet, an empty village with cleared land for crops, the Wampanoag inhabitants having been wiped out by plague (probably smallpox) brought by previous Europeans. As a child I had imagined the Indians silently showing the Pilgrims how to plant corn, because they had no common language. As an adult I discovered the Pilgrims had help from Squanto, a Native man who spoke English! And how he came to speak English is an adventure tale in itself, involving kidnapping by the English, being enslaved in Spain, his escape and finally, his return home to find everyone in his village had died.

Scholastic News booklet, 2007

My sister Judy, a grade school teacher, sent me a copy of Scholastic News (Nov/Dec 2007) for second graders which features a section on “Squanto and the Pilgrims.” In its favor is the depiction of Squanto as a person in his own right, who “saw that [the Pilgrims] needed his help” and “became a generous teacher.”  As a child, I would have liked knowing the names and stories of the people who helped the Pilgrims. But I would still have been learning about Squanto and the sachem Massasoit as singular “good Indians” who helped “us” survive—an echo of the words of Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford who wrote that Squanto was “a special instrument sent of God” to further “our” larger purpose.

Then there’s the belief in an unbroken tradition from the First Thanksgiving in 1621 to the present day. In actuality, the national holiday in late November was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. And the proclamation makes no mention whatsoever of Pilgrims. It talks about “the gracious gifts of the most high God” in the midst of a “civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity” and calls on all citizens at home and abroad to “set apart and observe a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” The Plymouth story was added later.

In 1869, after the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting the right to vote regardless of race, political cartoonist Thomas Nast published “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner“–depicting Americans of many ethnicities and national origins seated together. The hopefulness depicted here was soon dashed with Jim Crow and other laws that made it hard for many to exercise that right.

In actuality, that first feast at Plimoth Plantation celebrating the harvest was a European tradition that coincided with the local native tradition of harvest celebrations. There are lots of resources online for those curious to know more. And it is good to know more. We can take it upon ourselves to be myth-busters, to not pass on a simplistic story of togetherness that makes white Americans feel good, when the legacy of what came afterwards is still felt in the continued injustices of today .

In 1961, I wrote in my diary about Thanksgivings at Grandpa and Grandma’s house:

“Every year I wait for that one special grace simply because I love the feeling it gives me. To be around with people I love. To have good food. To be happy.”

Yes, last night I made a pumpkin pie. Today, I’m cooking a turkey. And my heart is full of gratitude for all the wonderful people in my life and for the good fortune I have. But it’s not enough for me.

In recent years, I’ve added another tradition. On Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, the Ohlone and other indigenous people here in the San Francisco Bay Area gather with friends and allies at the memorial Shellmound in Emeryville. They are protesting the building of the Bay Street Mall on the graves of thousands of their ancestors and the desecration of other sacred sites.  They urge shoppers to “Buy Nothing.” Tomorrow, I will join them.

What did you learn about the first Thanksgiving when you were in school?
If you are a teacher, what do you teach your students today?
If you are a parent, do you talk to your children about Thanksgiving? If so, what do you tell them?
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3 Responses to The Land Where Thanksgiving Was Invented

  1. Janet Hasz says:

    Recently someone I know who is black commented on July 5 on something I had posted with the opening phrase, “I don’t know what you all are celebrating [then inserted an emoji looking dumbfounded],” and then went on to tell me how the rising taxes are making it impossible to live and more. I had already been thinking about this on the 4th. On the one hand there is a kind of pure, childish joy on the 4th of July for being in this country. On the other hand, there is the terrible underbelly that is not an “under” belly at all, but the horrendous truth of how this country was birthed on slavery and the slaughter of the native people. I need to learn more and more about this to counteract the omnipresent white-washing in me and around me.

  2. Rae Mary says:

    Thoughtful and helpful. I had a big dinner for my family and friends. Our family doesn’t talk about the pilgrims. But my grand kids are still hearing too much of the “white” version at school. When I ask my 8 year old what they teach him, he talks about both the settler s and the Indians, but it’s unclear where the emphasis is. Thanks for the reminder that we are our children’s teachers too! Thanks for the links too.

  3. Jerry Smith says:

    Thanks for this reminder of the ‘true’ story and how we continue as the dominant culture to
    perpetuate myths.

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