The Invention of Thanksgiving
November 26, 2019 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday.

Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving for nearly four centuries, commemorating that solemn dinner in November, 1621. We know the story well, or think we do. Adorned in funny hats, large belt buckles, and clunky black shoes, the Pilgrims of Plymouth gave thanks to God for his blessings, demonstrated by the survival of their fragile settlement. The local Indians, supporting characters who generously pulled the Pilgrims through the first winter and taught them how to plant corn, joined the feast with gifts of venison. A good time was had by all, before things quietly took their natural course: the American colonies expanded, the Indians gave up their lands and faded from history, and the germ of collective governance found in the Mayflower Compact blossomed into American democracy.

Almost none of this is true.

posted by poffin boffin (7 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Thanksgiving is white America's creation myth.

Thanksgiving: A Day of Mourning, by Roy Cook for American Indian Source.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:53 AM on November 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

I find this all the funnier since I'm in a Christmas/Hanukkah play right now (Coney Island Christmas) and thus I spend a lot of time watching kids put on a Thanksgiving pageant where Squanto is all "I spent a lot of time in England!" and "We want to help you!"
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:20 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wasn't aware schools still did Thanksgiving pageants. I think I've only ever seen reference to them on TV or movies. I'm curious if that is a regional thing.
posted by Fleebnork at 4:20 AM on November 27, 2019

They didn't do them where I'm from, but they weren't great on theater opportunities for kids below high school growing up. Taking random polls among the cast recently, it sounded the other day like some places do and some don't.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:50 PM on November 27, 2019

Sure is always really stark how few comments are in threads about Native things. And gotta say, uncritical conversation about how our genocide is a feel good pageant is really not what I expected a full three quarters of the comments to be about. *blink, blink* Yes, theater opportunities.

Nary a peep about the actual content of the article. Just a reminder that red face is actively being played out in America right now for theater opportunities by mefites. Good, good.

This is not funny.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:39 PM on November 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I'm also not seeing what's funny about the mention of pageants glossing over and oversimplifying the Pilgrims' part in America's history, especially when the entire article is about the damage of such pageantry on a larger scale. The ongoing psychic damage unto Americans on a meta scale, if you will.

Reading the article itself, I think Deloria does a decent job of writing about Silverman's book (This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving) while also writing a piece that stands on its own as a thing to read.

To be generous, I'll guess that some other MeFites are like me, not thinking there's anything I can contribute via a comment that hasn't already been better said in the article itself, so I'll just quote a passage from the article I think gets at the heart of why such feel-good ultra-sanitized Thanksgiving pageantry does more damage than it avoids:
The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West and the rising tide of celebratory regret that the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once called “imperialist nostalgia.” Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of African slavery. The fable also allowed its audience to avert its eyes from the marginalization of Asian and Latinx labor populations, the racialization of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants, and the rise of eugenics. At Thanksgiving, white New England cheerfully shoved the problematic South and West off to the side, and claimed America for itself.
The latter half of the article provides an illuminating overview of the history of the Wampanoags and how brutally the white settlers "repaid" their magnanimity, while also reminding the reader that the stakes remain high nowadays for Native Americans. One more excerpt:
Today, the Trump Administration would like to deny this history, wrongly categorize Indians as a racial group, and disavow ongoing treaty relationships. Native American tribal governments are actively resisting this latest effort to dismember the past, demanding better and truer Indian histories and an accounting of the obligations that issue from them.
posted by rather be jorting at 10:14 AM on November 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

They adopted the forms of the Christian church, to some degree, in order to gain some breathing space.

Nothing to add: I just appreciate the writing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:28 PM on November 29, 2019

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