Thanksgiving Conundrum

It’s that time of year again. It’s that time for giving. That loving, all-inclusive time when people the nation over give their opinion freely and with barely any restraint (depending on how you test against a brown paper bag) on whether you should or not celebrate the holidays, wish others a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays (statement depending), and by how much.

I’m going to use Thanksgiving as the example because it’s currently the closest holiday to date, but you can apply this to just about any holiday under “attack” (as it were) using different methods but all with the same end result. And quite frankly it’s sad.

When I was young I decided that Thanksgiving was my holiday, and I started to pour tradition and energy into it the way you would with a traditional holiday. Thanksgiving is personal for me, the one holiday that stands out in the crowd.

You see, in school it was the only time my culture was truly represented in some form or another. Every year in elementary school you could dress up as a pilgrim or an Indian (Yes, I said Indian and, yes, every year that’s what I chose.) so it was like I got to be myself and see others who wanted to dress up as myself. For my family, it was a three day affair and it will *always* be a three day affair for me. You didn’t eat and run. You stayed. You watched T.V. together. Even though we didn’t have extended family that came over, it was us. Our weekend. Our three day special affair.

In school, we were taught that it’s origins actually came from a feast held by Indigenous Americans, and it was a traditional annual shebang that they just happened to invite the Pilgrims to. We weren’t taught that this was when the land was handed over to the Pilgrims, as the Smithsonian puts it in this article. We were taught that it was a gesture of friendship, goodwill. Even brotherhood. It was a time for all of us to get together in that big “melting pot” the propaganda was always talking about and be thankful for what we had without being covetous of our neighbors. And for the record, I went to public school.

That was it. There was nothing else in these teachings. Just the facts as it were.

Years later when the parents joined with the Cherokee of Georgia I learned about Green Corn, which is a week long special affair that just happens to coincide with Thanksgiving. This only helped to cement my feelings for the three day affair (Green Corn lasts an entire week), and it gave me drive to continue to make Thanksgiving my own for myself and my family.

This is where the attack comes in. The misinformation. The angst. The… political correctness.

There’s a story that’s been circulating for years now that the first Thanksgiving happened because a native american family or – in some stories – an entire village was burned alive as they holed up in their wigwam, shed, hutch, insert building here. People saw it on the internet so it must be true, and with that the flames of anger and buried hatred are fanned into a fury. People started to call for the cancellation of Thanksgiving. It has grown so that there are entire families that no longer take part in this tradition.

This is at least a partial lie, by the way. People have cancelled a family social gathering over a lie.

I’m not saying there wasn’t a massacre, because there were plenty of those. You should not celebrate such things, no matter your religion. I’m saying this isn’t how Thanksgiving itself started. There really was an “intertribal” feast between the two ethnic groups. There are records of what was on the meal roster, as a matter of fact. (Interestingly, turkey is not on it. But duck is.)

Picture this, because this is as close to the truth as I can get right now without dusting off my degree and making the entire story a year long specialty to write a PhD paper from.

The Wompanoag, who already had had a lot of contact with Europeans at that point, were at war with the Narragansett, who happen to be blood cousins of mine by tribal affiliation. The once extremely populated continent wasn’t so extremely populated anymore largely thanks to disease, and there was natural strife over resources or because someone’s mother-in-law was ugly. So the Wompanoag sachem (in Mohegan sôcum, pronounced soh (nasally) – chuhm, means chief) Ousamequin invited the Pilgrim leader and his people to a dinner.

In my mind, this is an important point. The Pilgrims were invited by the Wompanoag. Please take note on who was friendly to whom first, because I won’t be testing you later.

This dinner wasn’t about becoming a melting pot. It was a political affair. Ousamequin saw the Pilgrims as possible allies. Things did deteriorate over time and culminated in King Philip’s War and has nothing to do with the feast. Not everyone agreed with Wompanoag, either. They wanted to make peace with the Narragansett instead. But these are the facts: There was an alliance overture, and that is the point of the thing. On this day, things were set aside and differences were accepted in order to stuff their faces and talk about working together. You can nitpick it all you want and even lie about it, but the facts don’t change just because you don’t know or want to ignore them.

Then history happened and the feast became part of it… until 1769 when the day began to be promoted for… tourism. The story of Thanksgiving was recalled and embellished – candy-coated if you will – and was used to draw people in. Another note to take here: there is no massacre. No sacrifices, except on the part of a turkey. Just people wanting other people to give them money.

Don’t be disheartened by this because the fact is a lot of our modern holidays are here because of tourism. Mother’s Day anyone?

Over time the tradition of Thanksgiving for mainstream America became a time of family. You’d get together, you’d feast. You’d hang out. You’d see your grandparents who you haven’t seen in a while because the subway isn’t invented yet. Some family gatherings were very large and probably were more like family reunions than anything. I also imagine they were deeply religious for some. Who am I to judge.

I feel it’s important to point out that this means Thanksgiving, unlike Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Passover, etc., along with the Fourth of July, are truly American holidays. They are our holidays.

Let me remind you redundantly what a holiday is for. It’s a time to celebrate. It’s a time to smile, feel good, usher in the new year, thank the spirits, spend time with loved ones, honor milestones in your life, acknowledge the turning of the year, and take a break. Ideally you let the stresses go. Lift the weight off your shoulders.

Do you know what you do when you don’t at least take a holiday for these necessary things? You hurt your spirit. You also hurt the spirits of those around you.

I remember one year I was taking my daughter trick or treating around our neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. We came to one house, knocked, and the woman who opened the door was furious to find us there. “I don’t celebrate that demonic holiday!” she shouted at us before slamming the door. Then she turned out her porch light.

The thing I remember most of that encounter was behind her. There, sitting on the couch politely as if being forced to, was a little girl and an older boy. The sad sad eyes the boy gave us bother me to this day.

Demonic holiday? Halloween? This is what happens when people want to attack something so sacred as that. Halloween isn’t Samhain, but they are cousins sort of. The type of Halloween most Americans celebrate has Christian roots. Hardly demonic.

I’m sure these obscure facts will somehow magically erase the pain on that little boy’s heart that night. Why don’t you go tell him? Pfft.

I see Thanksgiving as victim #2 some days and Halloween is victim #1. Halloween is forever changed from how it was when I was a kid. I partially blame Trunk or Treat. It’s barely here any more unless you’re handily gothic. When it comes to the damage to Thanksgiving, I partially blame the Super Bowl.

“Thanksgiving is a genocide, colonist holiday” is the outcry by many others, some of which are fellow tribal members. According to the linked article:

‘By 1637, Jensen writes, Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop “was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children” – a bloody pattern that would “repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated’.”

There’s more of course. There’s the forced sterilization of countless Native American women – how best to keep them from breeding after all? (This by the way also happened to many other Black women in the states, and yes even to at least one White woman the courts had deemed incompetent.) There are diseased blankets in American history. The Indian Wars. Stolen children. Indian schools… the list goes on and on and I guarantee you most of it touched my own family in some form or another.

The problem I have with taking all of that and dumping it onto a family holiday is the outcome of it and the reasoning behind it.

First, is the outright manipulation and lie. Take for example the quote from above. “Proclaiming a thanksgiving” is just arguing schematics. This is another case, when someone points to a phrase like that, of modern day armchair historians trying to force historical people to speak the exact same language and to think exactly like we do in modern times… well okay. Some actual historians play the same game, which is why history is often debated by scholars instead of being allowed to just stick to the facts. Manipulating language is a great way to manipulate the masses. Not knowing your history is another.

The second problem I have with it is the result to our families and our spirits. No one celebrates anything because how dare the other side! We’re encouraged to treat Thanksgiving as just any other day. Thankfulness? Bah. You’re supposed to be mindful of that everyday, so why let a special time of the year remind you of it (even if secular stress can make us forget and sometimes we need a helping hand)? Work without complaining you have to work on a holiday because this is a genocidal day. Mull over the past angrily. Some go online to pick on people they think are too White (I’ve seen it). No one goes to see their grandmother, who doesn’t even get a phone call much in this day and age. (But you can bet a lot of these folks are watching the Super Bowl.) In essence, bruise your spirit and take no time to heal because history.

I could digress here about many examples the world over of war-torn areas that actually have this ideology so embedded in their core they spend days teaching their children the sheer hatred but… that would take a very long time and probably get me banned from the internet.

The third is the damage to our very nation. Sounds insane, but let me remind you that Thanksgiving is OUR holiday. Unless you’re not an American citizen, this means you. It’s part of our worldview as a people, and it’s that thing which helps to keep us unified.

I don’t entirely like relying on Wikipedia to give you a reference for this part (Nor do I like having to dust off the degree because it’s, well, work.) but this is what I was able to find past the mire of fluff about cultural diversity the internet offered me:

worldview or world-view is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the whole of the individual’s or society’s knowledge and point of view. A worldview can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

The Romans saw themselves the children of Romulus and Remus. Catholics see themselves as worshipping the Trinity. Some Lokeans see themselves as the children of Loki. And Americans, when I was little, were taught about the Great Melting Pot. It even has it’s own song.

This Melting Pot is not a new idea. In the 1800’s, Ralph Emerson termed it “smelting pot”. The Galaxy magazine in 1876 printed:

The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even—transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.[10]

By the opening of the 1800’s it became “melting pot”: a symbol of a nation of unity. Perhaps ironically, the touristy version of Thanksgiving handed to children in school for generations after that falls perfectly in line with the concept. Different cultures getting together and chowing down in peace. Together. A meal of cultural diversity.

Without that concept what are we? Divided, like separate foods on a plate not being allowed to touch one another. You know those kinds of dishes served up. Admit it.

Thanksgiving over time has become a holiday of thankfulness and the celebration of our different cultural nations being able to get along together. Without it, what do we have? Well, one less holiday yes. No big deal for some. Except it’s also one less reminder to celebrate unity and togetherness. One less time to give thanks. One less balm to our spirits. One less phone call to our grandmothers. Less of everything good that these holidays bring to our cultures and our lives.

Every year when someone inevitably gets their panties in a wad that I’m going to have Thanksgiving feast because somehow what I do makes them more Indian than me, I have to come back to this.

I have always acknowledged the strife my family, cousins, and nation cousins have all experienced since America first began to form as a nation. I am after all a direct descendent of grand sachems – part of the only family the United States government has recognized as true Native American royalty. My family fought in King Philip’s War (and were at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII). We were sent to the Redbud Indian School. We’ve been kidnaped, hanged, burned, and chased off our land. My grandfathers founded not just one, but two whole tribes. And I am thankful for the royal and noble blood in my veins.

I honestly don’t see why people can’t do as I did and simply make the holiday their own. After all, the first dinner was a Native American idea. It only makes sense.

Here is how the holiday was my own this year.

  • I cooked Narragansett bread from a recipe based off of the dish used by my own ancestors who came from the Narragansett side of the family. I almost bought a duck but maybe next year. I always try to have traditional food on our table. Every year I’m able to do more and more of it as my skills and repertoire grows.
    • We almost didn’t have a dinner. I’m thankful we were able to do it. I always have a ham if I can because I like ham. I was very thankful we were able to have that this year, too.
    • My husband stuffed his face. I’m sure he was glad to do so.
  • I played music that I felt honored the spirits – chiefly the sun as that is my own personal spirit interest. This also is a nod to our fallen ancestors and beloved family members.
  • I talked with a friend of mine by Zoom a bit. She’s not Red; as far as I know she’s White. But this is a day of connections and appreciating people and things in your life, so rather than worry about skin color I instead enjoyed her company.
  • Candles! I lit tea lights in various special nooks and crannies about the house, to various different spirits and thought ideals.
  • Then for the sake of teaching, I came into my office to finish this article as fast as possible (I’ve been writing it a couple of weeks now). It doesn’t have as much depth as I wanted it to have but I want to go do other things now.

To break that down for you: I honored my ancestors. I honored the spirits. I honored life. I honored my friends. I gave honor this day.

That’s what Thanksgiving is for me, and I’ll be continuing to honor things until Sunday because it’s not a one day affair. It’s a festival of thanks and honor.

Look. I understand there are those of you that might genuinely see this time as a genocidal holiday. But what you’re missing I think is that we’re still here. They tried to get rid of us, but we remain and we thrive. In this year 2020 we even had a “record number” of Native American women elected to Congress. There’s so much to be thankful for while truly practicing diversity. Why not do it on the day that has come to mean, over time, just that to so many Americans?

Why not take this weekend as our own?

If you’re more worried about fostering hate or stamping that out, you’re missing it. You stand divided.

And that’s why I find it so very sad.