Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why Don't You Celebrate Thanksgiving? An Essay

I post this here on the ZPT every year.
Have a wonderful day---whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not.


Do not read this if you will be offended by a different point of view on the Thanksgiving holiday.

have no desire to ruin anyone's holiday (which is why I post this essay the day after Thanksgiving, rather than during the celebration itself.)

I am posting this only because I am personally of the belief that knowledge hidden is knowledge wasted. 

I also truly believe that all of us, every single one of us, can benefit greatly from making the attempt to see things from the other's point of view.


Over the last few days, my husband and I have been asked this question many times. It happens every year. My reply that I am a Native American only seems to confuse some of the questioners. 

"Well, it's your holiday, too," they insist.

My answer:
No. It is not my holiday.

And here is why.

Most Americans learn the traditional Thanksgiving story their first year or so of grammar school. It usually involves making a big turkey out of brown construction paper and the outline of your hand.

Often, they put on a play based on what they've learned. The teachers start by separating the kids into two groups: Pilgrims and Indians. And after they've decked themselves out in black paper hats with buckles on the brim...

...and strips of paper "headbands" around their foreheads complete with fake feathers perched high above their hair.

Now, properly rehearsed and attired, the kids take their classmates and parents through the familiar tale that is America's first Thanksgiving feast.

This story tells that the Pilgrims came to this country seeking religious freedom. After their first brutal winter in the "New World," the grateful Pilgrims celebrated with a feast and invited their Indian friends and neighbors to share in their bounty.

It's a nice story, full of hard work, perseverance, the virtues of sharing, and the joy of parties involving multiple types of pies.

But it's not the whole story. 

That story you learned at your teacher's knee and performed in front of your classmates and parents is a mixture of both truth and myth. What follows, is our truth. It's the side of the story that doesn't appear in textbooks or Charlie Brown specials. But it does appear here, on the Zen Pretzel Trick, the day after Thanksgiving. 

•So what is our side of of the tale?•

In order to understand the First Thanksgiving, we need to understand the people at the feast. 

First, the Pilgrims. 

One thing you need to keep in mind when discussing the Pilgrims is that they were first formed as a splinter group of the Puritans, an extremist religious sect. In today's terms, we would call the Puritans "fundamentalists," and the Pilgrims were a more extreme brand of fundamentalism than their Puritan counterparts. They were not unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, and were viewed by mainstream Christianity in much the same way as modern Christians view the WBC: as an unfortunately vocal minority with extremist tendencies not shared by the vast majority of faithful Christians.

The Pilgrims viewed themselves as the "Chosen Elect" from the Book of Revelations. They saw themselves as fighting a Holy War against Satan, and anyone who disagreed with them was by definition their enemy. 

This inculded their "friends," the Native Americans. This point is rather graphically illustrated in the 1623 Thanksgiving sermon, wherein the descendents of the original Pilgrims gave thanks to G-d for the smallpox that had nearly eradicated their previous Thanksgiving benefactors, the Wampanoag Tribe.

They were especially thankful that the men and children, whom the referred to as the "seedsof their nation," had perished from the disease. Not a particularly nice way to treat peoples who helped them survive that first winter in the "New" World. 

By all accounts, the Puritans were woefully unprepared for their first winter in America. It was a particularly grueling and harsh season. Unfamiliar with the land and in dire straights, they turned to their Indian neighbors for help. 

The decision to provide that help, according to the Wampanoag oral tradition, was not without controversy. Their deeply-held religious beliefs stressed the importance of giving help to the needy and being kind to one's neighbors. But despite the strength of that belief, many of the Tribe were reluctant to help the struggling European newcomers. Why? Because in the early months of the Pilgrims' settlement, they repeatedly committed what is for nearly all Tribes a most terrible crime: that of grave robbing.

In the early days of their settlement, the Puritans would quite regularly seek out Indigenous burial sites and loot them for the grave goods buried with the deceased. Pottery, weapons, jewelry, tools, various types of seeds and more were removed from the graves. The bodies of the often recently-deceased Indians were either haphazardly re-buried, or worse, simply left out to rot. 

In the end, the desire and conviction to help the Pilgrims overrode the Tribesmen's anger and disgust at the desecration of dozens (if not hundreds) of Tribal graves. The Wampanoag gave their new neighbors a second chance; doubtless they chalked it up to differences between the two cultures and simply asked that such sites be left alone in the future.

It was soon obvious how fortuitous this second chance really was. For without the help of the Natives, the Pilgrims would have lost much if not the majority of their population to the particularly fierce East Coast winter. 

And the Pilgrims were obviously grateful for this assistance. After all, with the bounty of their first successful harvest, they invited their Indian friends to share in that bounty that the Pilgrims were so grateful to the Indians for making possible. Right?

Not exactly. 

The feast did happen, but it wasn't the sharing, celebrating, New World gathering you were led to believe in during all those school plays. It was less about brotherhood, unity and cooperation, and more about settling the score. 

You see, the settlers believed they had "repaid" the Natives for their help with that feast...and now they owed the Natives nothing more. 

Apparently,  helping an entire settlement to survive a miserable year was worth exactly one dinner invitation insofar as the Pilgrims were concerned. And with that debt paid, they could now feel free to not only start robbing graves again...but move forward with their plans to destroy the Indigenous peoples of their newly-adopted homeland.

I imagine that is the reason why all those Thanksgiving plays end at the same time the feast does!

Why did the Puritans feel this way towards people who had shown them both kindness and forgiveness? Do you remember a few paragraphs ago, when we talked about how the Pilgrims believed they were fighting a Holy War and you were either with them, or against them? Well, they had not changed their minds on that score. Natives were still their Holy enemies, to be treated as such. And the Pilgrims, once that feast of cranberries and lobster had properly digested, returned wholeheartedly to their regularly scheduled religious zealotry. 

To say that their dinner companions didn't see that coming is a monumental understatement. What the Indians didn't appreciate was that the beliefs and convictions that led them to treat their new neighbors with charity and with kindness were not beliefs the Pilgrims themselves shared. 

And so for a time, the Tribe and the settlers co-existed peacefully. What the Indians failed to understand was that all along the Puritans knew this was to be a temporary situation. They believed they only needed to be kind and civil to the Natives until the boatloads of reinforcements arrived and shifted the balance of power in the Pilgrims' favor. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of American history realizes that this is exactly what happened.

The sad irony was that in the Tribe's religion, one must give hospitality to any who came to them with open hands, and furthermore, their religion stressed the importance of charity to the helpless. Which sounds a lot like Christian values...unless you happen to be a Pilgrim. 

So what exactly did happen once the table was cleared and the feast came to an end?

By the time the children of that first Thanksgiving reached adulthood, the Pilgrims and their much-longed-for reinforcements began to systmatically commit genocide against the Native peoples in what is known as King Phillip's War

Many of the Natives who escaped death on the battlefield were captured and sold into slavery for the profit and comfort of the Pilgrims...the very people whom they had saved from starvation only a few short years beforehand. So successful was this slave trade, in fact, that the settlers began raiding African coasts to bring even more slaves to the "New" World.

Which brings us back to those elementary school plays.

Kids in American public schools aren't told about the cultural and religious values of the Indians in the Thanksgiving story. In most cases, the Tribe isn't even mentioned by name. They are not taught about the religious fantaticism of the Pilgrims, nor has even one short paragraph on King Phillip's War appeared in their history textbooks. They are often not even told that most of the food at that First Thanksgiving was provided by the Indians. 

But to really add insult to injury, schools have for generations been prompted to "re-enact" that first feast by donning gross misrepresentations of Native ceremonial regalia and speaking in broken English in order to pretend be the "Indians" who are "thankful" to be invited to the feast! 

These depictions are hurtful and offensive to Native Americans. 

Thankfully, many schools now are discontinuing such programs as a result, or altering them into a more tolerant program.

And that is something that even this Indian is grateful for this Thanksgiving.

After sharing this history. I often hear even more questions about my refusal to celebrate this holiday.

"Ok, I understand what happened now, thanks. But I am still not sure why you don't celebrate Thanksgiving. Do all Natives boycott it? What do you do instead?" 

We don't all boycott this holiday, and we don't all celebrate the Day of Mourning, either (more on this later.) We are like all ethnicities and nationalities: we are not all of a piece, instead we are a diverse population of individuals. 

There are more than 500 Tribal Nations in North America. We have a huge range of beliefs, traditions and even languages huddled up under the umbrella term "Native American."

Think of Native America the same way you would think of Europe. They don't speak French much in Italy, and you won't get served a lot of paella in Ireland or slivovitz in Greece. The Dutch put out wooden shoes for Christmas, where the British would hang a stocking and the Turkish wouldn't celebrate it at all. That one continent represents a huge number of languages, traditions and religious beliefs, all unique to their people and environment. 

The difference between Europe and Native America? North America is a great deal larger, and as a result, even more diverse.

So do Natives have an alternative to the usual Turkey Day celebrations?

Yes. Many Natives celebrate a "Day Of Mourning" on Thanksgiving Day.

This tradition began in 1970 (a speech from the Day of Mourning by the Wampanoag on the 350th anniversary of the First a Thanksgiving is at the very bottom of this blog post, and it is definitely worth a read!) 

This day is set aside to mourn our ancestors who were killed for their generosity and low tolerance for watching pale people starve. 

Do you mind if I ask you a pressing question: is there a chance, however remote, that these two versions of the Thanksgiving story just aren't confusing enough? Well, you're in luck! Because you see, there isn't just one Thanksgiving origin story. There's TWO. 

The other story is generally referred to as the Pequot Massacre. It took place in 1637, in what is now the state of Connecticut. Ironically, it all began with a Thanksgiving-type holiday: the annual Green Corn Festival for the Pequot Tribe. Somewhere around 700 Tribal peoples came to celebrate.

In the wee hours of the morning, as the Pequot enjoyed their after-feast sleep, they were ambushed by mercenaries (mostly British and Dutch). Those who came outdoors were brutally murdered. Those who stayed indoors were burned alive. 

The very next day, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "A Day Of Thanksgiving." And all because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been heinously slaughtered. 

Inspired, the settlers just kept going. Several Tribes were similarity attacked. This time, ambush and murder wasn't the main agenda, because why bother to attack unarmed people and NOT make a sweet profit at the same time? Those fancy buckle hats don't pay for themselves, you know. 

All Indians over the age of 14 who somehow managed to survive being killed were loaded up on boats and sold into slavery, as many as 500 at a time. And if you only managed to kill and not enslave? Don't worry, you can still afford that fancy hat, as bounties for the scalps of slaughtered innocents were introduced. And a use was even found for the heads of the dead Indians: they were kicked in the streets like soccer balls.

This included the head of the Wampanog chief. Not to be outdone by their fellow immigrants in Connecticut, the "grateful Pilgrims" had him killed, beheaded...and then put his head on a pole in Plymouth, the very city the chief's people had saved from starvation.

And they kept his head on that pole...for almost 25 years.

So giddy over this kill-enslave-or-head-soccer were the Pilgrims, they responded by declaring a SECOND "Day of Thanksgiving" just to celebrate it. 

"But wait! You should still celebrate Thanksgiving. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did!" 

That particular quote comes from an online forum for women, and was said shortly after I posted my lack of stuffing and cranberry sauce the third week of November. It's a new one for me (and u thought I'd heard it all.) 

The lady who made the comment does have a point: Washington did order such a day, and Lincoln later made it a federal holiday. 

But did you ever wonder why?

Washington suggested that only one Thanksgiving per year should be order to deter more killings after the Pequot Massacre. And as for Honest Abe? Yes, he made it an official American holiday. However, the timing could hardly have been worse, as he had something else on his agenda on that day: he ordered troops to march against the poor and starving Sioux in Minnesota. On the very same day. 

So, to wrap it up: in our version of the first Thanksgiving, we helped the Pilgrims survive that first horrible winter in the "New World." 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 Europeans came to make good on the promise to commit genocide. 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.).

Which at long last, brings me to answer the question that started it all: 

Why don't you celebrate Thanksgiving? 

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. Nowadays, 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 of the story 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'd like to wrap up this essay with a few quotes, a few pictures, a few jokes...and a statement from the Wompanoag Nation that I sincerely hope everyone takes a moment to read! Enjoy!•

"Wait, we can not break bread with you. You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years
from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans, and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the road sides, and you will play
golf, and eat hot hors d'ourves. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts." 

--Wednesday Addams, 
"Addams Family Values."

The following is a statement from a Wampanoag Tribal member in Massachusetts, from a speech given in 1970 at a ceremony marking the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival:

"Today is a time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people. Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature are once again important."

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving, observe the Day of Mourning, or simply celebrate nothing at all that day...I wish you a happy and safe holiday season. All I ask is that perhaps the next time you hear someone refer to Thanksgiving as a holiday to "honor" Native Americans, you can set them straight yourself...or send them hear. 

Knowledge kept hidden is knowledge wasted. And it does not honor us when our side of the story is ignored, rejected and unknown.

If you truly wish to honor us at Thanksgiving, you can do so with the following:

•Share with others our side of the Thanksgiving take, so that it is understood. •Donate to legitimate charities that seek to help our poorest Tribes. •Sign a petition for the release of Leonard Peltier. •Urge Washington to choose another name for their football team. •Write or email your Congressman to urge him/her to vote NO on the Keystone pipeline project. •Speak out when department stores use models dressed in "sexy Indian" costumes and/or headdresses; post on their Facebook sites that you are boycotting their business, and why. •Purchase crafts & gifts from Native artisans and businesses. •Read books by Native authors, such as Sherman Alexie. •Read about what is happening in Indian country and share what you learn via social networks. •Refuse to use wear offensive clothing/makeup that mocks our culture and traditions. •Show support for Idle No More via social media. •And if you see anti-Native racism, speak up. Let your voice be heard as part of the solution and not the problem. •And the number one thing you can do? Be a friend and an ally. Learn about us, and teach your friends, family and children what you've learned. Treat us with respect and kindness. Your actions will always speak louder of honor than your words ever will.

Wa do!
(Thank You) 

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