Saturday, November 27, 2004

So Why Don't You Celebrate Thanksgiving? An Essay from a Native American Perspective

I usually write this essay, every year, on one of my many message boards. I decided this time to post it here.

A disclaimer: read the warning first. If you don't, I'm not responsible if you get offended. Hell, I'm not responsible if you get offended either way.....

Do not read this if you will be offended by a different point of view on the Thanksgiving holiday. I am not here to preach to anyone and have no desire to ruin anyone's concept of the holiday. I am posting this only because I received so many requests to do so, and I am personally of the
believe that knowledge hidden is knowledge wasted. Thanks in advance.


Over the last few days, I have been asked this a dozen times or more. It happens every year. My reply that I am Native American only seems to confuse some of the questioners. "Well, it's your holiday, too," I hear a lot. My answer: it is not my holiday. And here is why.

The traditional Thanksgiving story tells that the Pilgrims, after a long and hard winter, celebrated with a feast and invited their Indian friends. A nice story, to be sure. But not the whole story. That story is a mixture of both truth and myth. What follows, is our truth.

First of all, one must understand that the Pilgrims were a splinter group of the Puritans, an extremist religious sect. They viewed themselves as the "Chosen Elect" from Revelations. They saw themselves as fighting a Holy war against Satan, and anyone who disagreed with them was their enemy. This inculded their "friends," the Natives. In fact, in the 1623 Thanksgiving sermon, they gave thanks to God for the smallpox that had nearly wiped out all of
the Wampanoag Indians. They were especially thankful that the men and children had died, or the "seeds" of their nation. Not a particularly nice way to treat peoples who helped them survive that first winter in the "New" World. For without the help of the Natives, the Pilgrims would have died. Insofar as the Pilgrims were concerned, they had "repaid" that kindness with the feast, and owed the Natives nothing more. The Natives were still their Holy
enemies, to be treated as such. In fact, the Pilgrims believed that they only had to be kind to the Natives because they were, at that time, powerful; and only needed to continue being kind until the boatloads of settlers shifted the balance of power in the Pilgrims' favor. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of American history realizes that that is exactly what happened.

Which leads one to a question with an ironic answer: "Why did the Natives help the Pilgrims?" Because, in their religion, one must give hospitality to any who came to them with open hands, and their religion stressed charity to the helpless. In fact, it was the Natives who brought the vast majority of the food to that first Thanksgiving feast! The Pilgrims weren't "sharing their bounty." It was the other way around.

By the time the children of that first Thanksgiving reached adulthood, the Pilgrims and their reinforcements began to systmatically commit genocide against the Native peoples in a war known as King Phillip's War. Many Natives were also captured and sold into slavery for the profit of the Pilgrims whom they had saved from starvation only years before. So successful was this slave trade, in fact, that the settlers began raiding Africa to bring slaves
to the "New" World.

To add insult to injury, children in schools have for generations been prompted to "re-enact" that first feast by donning gross misrepresentations of Native ceremonial clothing and speaking in broken English in order to
pretend be the "Indians" who are "thankful" to be invited to the feast! These "costumes" and broken English stereotypes are highly offensive to Native Americans, and many schools now are discontinuing such programs as a result, or
altering them into a more tolerant program.

Many Natives celebrate a "Day Of Mourning" on Thanksgiving Day, to mourn our ancestors who were killed for their generosity (I am not one who does this, although I respect those who do).

So, to wrap it up: in our version of the first Thanksgiving, we helped the Pilgrims survive that first horrible winter. We even brought a great deal of food to a feast to celebrate. Once the feast was over, we discovered that our "friends" saw us as demons to be eradicated from the land or sold into slavery for their profit. Shiploads upon shiploads of the "white man" came to make good on the promise to commit genocide against us. Our religious
beliefs prompted us to help them; theirs promted them to kill us. The sad irony of the myth that the Pilgrims "escaped" England because of religious persecution does not escape us (That story is not exactly true, either.
Click here for a more accurate history of the Pilgrims.)

So I cannot, in good conscience, celebrate a holiday that in my mind is a lie. I cannot celebrate the decimation of the Native American. I cannot celebrate people who, if they had had their way, would rather I not exist at all.

To be fair, Thanksgiving has evolved into something far beyond what the Pilgrims celebrated. Now, it means a gathering of the family, and a chance to count one's blessings. I respect those who celebrate for those reasons, and wish them a happy holiday.

I wish our side was taught in schools, rather than perpetuate the myths. I wish that Thanksgiving could be a time when Americans remember and honor the Native peoples who helped them survive and made this country possible. Perhaps someday, it will.

I want to thank everyone who showed interest in this topic. It brightens my day that so many people wanted to hear this side of the tale. Thank you.


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