Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What's Wrong with Thanksgiving?

It may seem churlish to fault with a holiday that brings families together, encourages interfaith worship, and depicts Indians and Pilgrims getting along peacefully. Yet I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving and couldn’t put my finger on why until I began to dig deeper into history and into myself.

First, I have long been troubled about the way we sanitize the story of the Puritans and Indians for our children. It is true that when the Pilgrims arrived, they were befriended by the local Wampanoag tribe and celebrated a Thanksgiving meal together. But this period of tranquility didn’t last long. Unlike the Quakers in Pennsylvania who believed that there was “that of God” in every person and treated the Indians with respect, the Puritans believed that the Indians were heathen savages and treated them accordingly. The Puritans broke their treaties, stole land, and massacred the natives. Very few Indians survived the Puritan invasion.
Our sanitized view of Thanksgiving reflects the Pilgrim perspective and the way we American like to view ourselves—as friendly, likeable people, not as invaders and conquerors. To understand the whole story, we need to look at the arrival of the Pilgrims from Indian point of view as well as the white man’s. William Apes (1798-1839), a Pequot Indian, wrote the following:

In December, 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and without asking liberty from anyone, they possessed themselves of a portion of the country, and built themselves houses, and then made a treaty and commanded them [the Indians] to accede to it.... And yet for their kindness and resignation towards the whites, they were called savages, and made by God on purpose for them to destroy....”

Apes details the atrocities committed by the Puritans over the next couple of decades. Of course, Apes was biased. The Puritans tried to eradicate the Pequots in 1637 and slaughtered women, children and old men in a famous battle in Mystic, Connecticut. If we want our children to grow up with a complete and accurate view of American history, we need to share with them this Indian perspective.
I am not suggesting that we wallow in guilt about our treatment of the Indians. What we need to do is listen, really listen to what the native people, the First People, are trying to tell us, and teach us. Over the years, I have made it a practice to try to find and connect with Native peoples wherever I live, whether it’s New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, or wherever. Millions of Native people live among us (sometimes next door) and they have a perspective that we seldom hear, but need to take seriously.

I am deeply grateful for what I have learned from Native people. Thanksgiving seems a good time to express that gratitude.

This year I was especially moved by the words of Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh (Navaho) Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, who works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California. She wrote a moving essay called “Thanksgiving from an Indian Perspective” that begins:

I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official US celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people. Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing "Land of the Pilgrim's pride" in "America the Beautiful." Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing "Land of the Indian's pride" instead. (See

http://www.racismagainstindians.org/Perspectives/ )

Jacqueline proudly describes some of the things that the Native people have given to the world, and for which we should all be thankful. She lists lots of foods, including potatoes and tomatoes, but for some reason leaves out chocolate (my favorite). At my wife’s church, we have long made it a practice to thank the Native people for their gifts during our worship service from time to time. It is a good exercise, one that I recommend. Why not try it at your Thanksgiving meal this year?
Jacqueline concludes her essay with a story that helps us to look deeper into our own hearts for the seeds of violence that has darkened our history from the time of the Puritans to the present:

By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way “for a better growth," meaning his people. In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil. I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism. Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us.

Sad to say, we white Americans are still inclined to hide our hearts in a secret place and to sanitize our motives. Only when we look within ourselves and acknowledge our human weaknesses can we be healed and become whole human beings, capable of love and truthfulness.

We should be grateful to our Indian brothers and sisters for trying to teach us this important lesson. It is a lesson that we need to take to heart and to share with our children on this day of Thanksgiving.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, thank you so much for writing this. I'm still working up a lesson to give over to my kids as to why we don't celebrate Thanks Giving and I think this piece has a lot to work with.