Like most of you, I have Thanksgiving memories rooted in tradition with my family. We watched football games, snuck chocolate turkeys that were meant for after the big meal, and grazed on handfuls of nuts and crackers until the full feast was finally served in the very late afternoon hours in a too-warm dining room.
As a kid, I was indoctrinated with Thanksgiving symbols of “Indians” and pilgrims through arts and crafts, many of which made their way to the white Frigidaire in the kitchen. We didn’t think much beyond the myths back then; we just went through the motions because, well, that’s what most of us did in America.
As I grew older, I realized that those iconic images of a family Thanksgiving immortalized by the idealistic artist Norman Rockwell and the stories we read in elementary school were hardly representative of the truths endured by our ancestors and early English settlers.
The traditions of “Thanksgiving” actually predate American colonies and served the Spaniards and the French as early as the 15th century. The celebrations were exactly as you might think: a time to be thankful for good crops and good health. We, as an American nation, spent centuries after Columbus so heroically sailed the ocean blue in 1492 (yes, I am rolling my eyes) trying to capture the “soul” of Thanksgiving’s origins to a 1621 gathering in Plymouth, where settlers celebrated their survival from a devastating winter and their first bountiful harvest later that year.
The trouble with that famous 3-day feast, however, is that it was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts while a most vicious and deadly battle with the Native Americans raged on in Virginia.
The origins of our relations with Native Americans could have turned out so differently. According to Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, “The Indians, Columbus reported in 1492, ‘…are so naive and so free with their possessions. . . .When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.”
These are the traits we so desperately wish upon ourselves, even now in the 21st Century.
Three years later, in 1495, Columbus had taken full advantage of this generosity and enslaved the Native Americans to find gold for him in Haiti. “When they brought [the gold],” Zinn writes, “they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. . . .In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. . . .By the year 1515, there were perhaps 50,000 Indians left. By 1550, there were 500.”
Then, at the turn of the 17th Century, in the very early years of English settlements in Virginia, tensions heightened between the Native Americans and early settlers.
In 1607, Chief Powhaten addressed a plea to John Smith that, according to Zinn, was of the following sentiment:
“I have seen two generations of my people die. . . .I know the difference between peace and war better than any man in my country. I am now grown old, and must die soon; my authority must descend to my brothers, Opitchapan, Opechancanough and Catatough, then to my two sisters, and then to my two daughters. I wish them to know as much as I do, and that your love to them may be like mine to you. Why will you take by force what you have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war? We can hide our provisions and run into the woods; then you will starve for wronging your friends. Why are you jealous of us? We are unarmed, and willing to give you what you ask, if you come in a friendly manner, and not so simple as not to know that it is much better to eat good meat, sleep comfortably, live quietly with my wives and children, laugh and be merry with the English, and trade for their copper and hatchets, than to run away from them, and to lie cold in the woods, feed on acorns, roots and such trash, and be so hunted that I can neither eat or sleep. In these wars, my men must sit up watching, and if a twig break, they all cry out, “Here comes Captain Smith!” So I must end my miserable life. Take away your guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy, or you may all die in the same manner.”
In 1620, following smaller back-and-forth attacks against each other in Virginia while peaceful relations continued in Plymouth, the Native Americans, anxious about the number of increasing English settlements, decided to go on the offensive and massacred 347 men, women, and children. This led to a full-on war between the two groups and eventual domination by the English settlers.
This is why the Thanksgiving images of that 1621 feast are so unsettling to me now. It’s an image of what should have been for both groups from the very beginning throughout the colonial settlements.
It wasn’t until 321 years later and following a series of proclamations that our US Congress passed a resolution in October 1941 recognizing the fourth Thursday in November to be a federal holiday celebrating Thanksgiving.
And here we are today.
For years, I have struggled with the discrepancies of this holiday stemming from some of the more general myths that we perpetuated in the second half of the 20th century. But to dwell too much on our past is, I think, a missed opportunity for us to return to the origins of being thankful long before our ancestors battled with the Native Americans and stole their land.
Let us embrace this holiday for its origins rooted in real gratitude and humble thanks for our most basic blessings: food, life, and community. Today, we are offered the chance to share this land with a beautiful and diverse population that comprises a society built on compassion, kindness, and love. Give to your neighbors, lift love and prayer for those in need, and be grateful for those who have lifted their own love to you.
In these times of tension and division within our own nation, let us make the choice to put all of that behind us and embrace the opportunities of our present to love one another more humbly, unconditionally, and for many months after the holidays come to an end for this solitary year.
Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. May your hours spent with loved ones be genuine, heartfelt, and long-lasting.