Writing for Creative Loafing in 2007, the Burton Wire’s founder & editor-in-chief Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. discusses the myth of Thanksgiving and the idea that we should examine the entire history of Native Americans and European settlers, not just the happy parts. As I re-read this piece, my perspective hasn’t changed very much. I’m always happy to see my family and spend time with them. However, I never feel quite right about celebrating a painful period for many in American history. Interestingly enough, what I wrote about Thanksgiving in 2007, still resonates today. If I had to write this story over again, I wouldn’t change too much except for asking that we pray for those we trespassed against and those in need. Check it out and share your thoughts in the comments section.
Thanksgiving: What Are We Really Celebrating?
It’s that wonderful time of year again — when families gather in observance of Thanksgiving, a celebration of the first harvest and when the Pilgrims arrived in what we now call America. Turkey, yams, cranberries, corn and pumpkins are prepared in a variety of ways in homage to the staples that kept Native Americans and early settlers fed. A prelude to various religious and cultural holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa), Thanksgiving has also become a time to give thanks for all of the wonderful things that happened over the course of the year. While the intent of this holiday is positive, I often wonder: Just what are we celebrating?
Capitalism comes to mind as we are inundated with commercials for Thanksgiving products during the month of October and into November. Turkeys, canned cranberries and a wide variety of Thanksgiving necessities are for sale. If you don’t want to prepare the meal yourself, you can call ahead to various restaurants and pick up the meal on “Turkey Day.” Are we celebrating convenience or the fact that fried turkey, a Southern comfort, can now be purchased in many places throughout the country? The Food Network gives us days and days of recipes to satisfy young and old. As we stuff ourselves into oblivion, dishes mount, serotonin kicks in, and we fall limp in front of the television, watching the college or pro football game of choice. I guess there’s nothing wrong with this. But something is just not quite right about it — particularly when we think about all of the people out in the world who cannot afford to eat on a regular basis, let alone exorbitant amounts of food in one sitting, or those who have lost their homes due to predatory lending, massive layoffs and a piss poor economy.
Further, the idea of Thanksgiving is overshadowed by the precarious history of our nation. Just as we fail to recognize Native Americans even during Native American History Month, we fail to give voice to what really happened to them during this period of history. Because of what we now call ethnic cleansing, Native Americans are less than 2 percent of the United States population, even though they were once 100 percent of the inhabitants of this continent. We often tell part of the story — the pretty part.
The Pilgrims and Indians met and got along. The Indians taught the Pilgrims how to survive in this New World, and the Pilgrims introduced the Native Americans to parts of their culture. Little is mentioned about how the early settlers turned on Native Americans, who did not want to “give” them their land, wiping them out through war and violence. European diseases also wreaked havoc on the lives of Native Americans, reducing their numbers drastically. In a culture that resists acknowledging wrongdoing, we pretend as if this chapter never happened, glazing over it like a Smithfield ham.
Just as we are content with having Native Americans tucked away out of sight on reservations so that we do not have to deal with the daily reminder of the atrocities that occurred, we are satisfied to tuck away the ugly part of this story from our children and ourselves. What are we really celebrating? The eradication of an entire group of people, whose history we rewrite or remove altogether, while we pretend that this holiday is based on a harmonious encounter?
Is this why we continue to circulate false stories about Native Americans throughout the year? Disney presents Pocahontas as a sexy love goddess who falls in love with her would-be captor, bridging the gap between natives and settlers. Yeah, not so much. Pocahontas was a young girl who was kidnapped, forcibly married to a settler, forcibly brought to England, forcibly baptized into the Catholic church and denied her last wish of returning to her homeland because she was dying from small pox. A mother to one son, she succumbed to this disease at the tender age of 21. Why do we not take the time during Thanksgiving to talk about these issues that are related to the time period, the people and the culture that we are supposedly celebrating?
I like to think of Thanksgiving as a time for giving thanks for what we have but also an opportunity to discuss some difficult moments in our history, while giving voice to those who often reside at the margins of society. Native Americans are much more than sorrowful tales or sanitized stories. Their culture is rich with the same values that we embrace, most notably tradition and family. How ironic is it that we sometimes watch the Redskins or the Chiefs play ball on Thanksgiving, yet do not discuss why Native Americans find these symbols offensive or denigrating? I believe that there is room for it all, and that by discussing the complexities of our culture, through the lens of Thanksgiving, we really will have something to give thanks about — truth, honesty, sensitivity and integrity.
This post originally appeared in Creative Loafing, November 21, 2007.