I’ve always know that “the first Thanksgiving” wasn’t really anything like what I was taught in grade school. I even suspected that very different, or maybe never happened. Maybe they fought. I didn’t know. It was long ago. I’ve long been aware of the crimes of White People in history, but there’s nothing I can do about those events, I can simply live accordingly now. At home we recognized that, and we never tried to recreate that “event”, but rather simply treated the day as a time of thanks to God for a good harvest, a good year, etc.
The summary is this. The Wompanog people did help The Pilgrims when they arrived, in hopes that the English would help defend them against enemies. In return the English stole their land, enslaved them, and simply killed many of them.
We think of the First Thanksgiving as that one meal in the autumn. But the English had a Thanksgiving meal after every Good Thing that happened. Like some years after that first terrible winter when they encircled the Wompanog village and lit it on fire and then shot anyone who tried to run out of the flames. That was a huge success, and they gave thanks accordingly.
So why do we have Thanksgiving?
In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a strong influx of immigrants, and the people who were here earlier than they needed to establish a hierarchy. “We’re better than you, we’ve been here longer.” So they invented some holidays like Thanksgiving to create that narrative.
In 1970 there was a “recreation” of the first Thanksgiving on Martha’s Vineyard, the ancestral home of the Wompanog. At the last minute someone said “Hey! We should invite the Indians too!”, so they invited a leader of the tribe. He prepared a speech that explained what had really happened and people were horrified. They told him he couldn’t give it, and they would write him a “proper” one to read. He refused and lead a protest outside the event. Now the Wompanog hold a National Day Of Mourning on the day the rest of us celebrate.
What to do?
A few days after we listened to the episode, Cate said to me “So what are we going to do about Thanksgiving? I don’t want to celebrate that.” We had a long talk about it, and came to some conclusions.
For me personally, Thanksgiving has never been about that narrative of the Pilgrims and the Indians, but by the same token that smacks of “the confederate flag isn’t about racism”, and I don’t want to go there either. (It also gives me a tiny bit of empathy for people who grew up loving that flag disconnected from its history of racism) What we decided is to keep having a family meal and giving thanks to God for the goodness He’s brought to our lives, while at the same time educating our children, our family, and the people around us about the history of what actually happened.
The classic Thanksgiving narrative is just that, a narrative. If we can CHANGE the narrative to be about the truth then we can make the world a better place, and be truly thankful for the right things.
The host of the podcast asked that we share it around, and help bring a wider awareness of what happened. So if you have some time, give it a list. The whole podcast is called Cheat! and is VERY good. This episode was titled “No Thanks(giving)“.