Mythology will have us believe that this year is the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving in the USA, commemorating a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. However Prof David J Silverman, George Washington University historian contests this interpretation. In his 1999 book, This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. He illustrates both the power and diplomatic skills of the indigenous Wampanoag Indians, and “ how all that the Pilgrims ultimately achieved came at the expense of native peoples."
The mythology of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving continues to be taught in schools passed down from one generation to the next by politicians, artists and TV and radio commentators. But Silverman questions the authenticity of this perspective. Focusing on the Wampanoag Indians, he deepens the narrative to consider tensions that developed well before 1620 when the Pilgrims in the Mayflower landed at Plymouth and lasted long after the devastating war of 1675. These events trace the Wampanoags' ongoing struggle for self-determination up to this very day. The unsettling history reveals why some modern Native people in the USA hold a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving, a holiday which to them celebrates a myth of colonialism and white proprietorship of the United States. This Land is Their Land shows that it is time to rethink how as a pluralistic nation, Americans tell, understand and celebrate the true history of Thanksgiving.
A glance at received wisdom reveals that:
While recounting these essential elements in the history of Thanksgiving, Silverman offers an eye-opening and vital reexamination of what he calls “America's founding myth." 400 years after that famous meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, he sheds profound new light on the events that led to the creation and bloody dissolution of this alliance. It is as revelation of fact vs. fiction as well as the complex relationship between the Wampanoag Indians and Pilgrims, their declared friendship, and the commitment to mutual defense that became a war just one generation after the so-called “First Thanksgiving.”
Inventing the Truth
The Thanksgiving myth suggests celebration of the first thanksgiving feast in 1621 was an initial encounter between English and the Wampanoag Indians which ended with the war between them in 1675. Yet historical records show encounters between the two groups dating back to 1500s. Silverman points out that it is convenient to demarcate 1621 -1675 because it allows for a counter narrative of white American triumphalism and manifestations of white nationalism to propagate the conversion of native Indians to Christianity and underestimate the prominent role of the Wampanoag leader Pumetacom and the native Indians who fed the Pilgrims at Plymouth , taught them farming techniques that saved their lives from the ravages of diseases. At the same time it fails to describe that the resistance of the Wampanoagians collapsed because native Indians surrendered and joined the English in 1675; that contrary to promises made, the English seized all Wampanoag property, made them bound labourers, held massive executions and sold them into the horrors of Caribbean slavery.
Silverman illustrates that throughout 17th Century to the early 19th Century Thanksgiving bore no actual association between Indians and pilgrim. The link between the holiday and history is propagated in a book, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers by Rev Alexander Young which mythologized the first Thanksgiving as the first harvest festival in what Silverman describes as the most famous footnote ever as it was subsequently disseminated by authors, lecturers, artists until in it was taken for granted. The 'gift of citizenship' to the Wampanoag that contributed to them surrendering in the 1675 war was indeed a trojan horse that robbed them of their remaining land. According to Silverman, “White Americans reduced Indians to bit parts. Pilgrims emerged as founding father at the time of cultural anxiety that the lands were being overrun by immigrants especially Catholics from Ireland and Germany".
A most vital contemporary exposure of the myth of Thanksgiving identified in the book is that of Frank James a Wampanoag, born in Martha's Vineyard 1948 who became Director of the Conservatory in the North East. He condemned what was supposed to be the 350th anniversary of Thanksgiving in 1976, as Plymouth’s manufactured history, a contribution to perpetuation of slavery and the betrayal of the native people who helped the Pilgrims to survive. Thanksgiving Day is therefore a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. It was advocated as a Day of Mourning. James' Thanksgiving speech was a pertinent eulogy: “Participants in this National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”
As we celebrate Thanksgiving day in the USA and elsewhere in the world and even at different times, especially in this COVID 19 era, it is useful to reflect on the religious interpretations and draw on the two pillars: gratitude and thanks. In a programme on NBC Today (November 24, 2021) Michael Curry the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church of the USA, described gratitude as an attitude and giving thanks as an action. In other words gratitude appreciates the blessings in one's life, but on its own, is insufficient. Christians to whom Lincoln appealed in his thanksgiving proclamation in 1863 are called to be doers of the word (James 1:22). They are required to go beyond being grateful and be intentional about giving thanks.
What are the implications for us. In a most basic sense we need to be grateful for being alive and sharing in the blessings of this life. More concretely we need to give thanks that children and more people are getting vaccines; for a world hopeful about the end of COVID 19 ; for a global wave that is becoming more aware and taking action (even slowly) on climate change to save the planet; and most of all, that we have an opportunity to reimagine and take action toward a different way of living based on social justice for all. Silverman teaches us that in celebrating Thanksgiving "we do ourselves no good by hiding from the truth."
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.