Thanksgiving... or mourning?

By Simon Barrow
November 22, 2012

Being married into an American family for the past 17 years, Thanksgiving has come onto my agenda in a way that I would never have considered before.

The event known today as the 'First Thanksgiving' was a harvest festival held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their First Nation neighbours. As the Pilgrim Hall Museum says, "It has acquired significance beyond the bare historical facts. Thanksgiving has become a much broader symbol of the entirety of the American experience."

Like most nationally appropriated symbols, this one is not short of ambiguities and questions. Unsurprisingly, the biggest objections come from Native Peoples. Each year since 1970, they and their allies have gathered at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for an alternative National Day of Mourning.

Pilgrim Hall again, on their page dedicated to the topic: "[I]n 1970, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James to deliver a speech. When the text of Mr James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known before the event, the Commonwealth 'disinvited' him. That silencing of a strong and honest Native voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning."

Proponents of Thanksgiving say that it is legitimate because it celebrates a moment of bonding between incomers and Native Peoples. The dissenting view is that in fact it was a celebration of victory in war, and that it puts a superficial and romanticised gloss on the larger and longer experience of the original inhabitants of the country, who suffered the expropriation of their lands, mass slaughter and the destruction of traditional ways of life.

In this alternative narrative, the First Thanksgiving myth "presents a distorted picture of the history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People across America is nowhere represented."

For me it would be churlish not to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends today, since in modern practice it is about them rather than the First Thanksgiving. But equally it would be wrong to do so without an awareness of the repentance (turning around and heading in a new direction) necessary to create a different future, to forget the blood and injustice that is also part of the story, or to fail to listen very carefully indeed to the voices of survivors from the First Nations.

* United American Indians of New England:

* Frank B. James speech:

* Pilgrim Hall Museum:

* Why some Native Americans can laugh about Thanksgiving:

* Rich Hall: Inventing the American Indian: (see YouTube for clips).


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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