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Reflections on Pilgrims Progress 1621, Giving Thanks and Telling the Truth 

Sequoyah with a tablet depicting his writing s...

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Americans like brief histories where Native American Tisquantum (Squanto) known as an envoy, interpreter and guide, was kidnapped, sold into slavery, escaped, and upon returning to his homeland found his people decimated by disease—helped a band of downtrodden outsiders. Unlike many colonial histories, Tisquantum is the hero of the modern American Thanksgiving. We know that the winters were rough in the early 1600s. Housing was scarce and there was a constant threat of malnutrition. No one wanted a repeat of the “starving time.” For the Pilgrims, the mortality rate was high. In order for this new set of religious separatists to survive they needed a good harvest, enough food to set aside for the winter.  As far as the “first Thanksgiving” is concerned, we have a sense of how their needs intersected in 1621—those political and social aims of both the Native Americans and the settlers. But it was Tisquantum, and many other Native American people, who helped the Pilgrims to survive after they determined that they had come in peace. A treaty came first. Thereafter, a harvest feast took place, barely similar or in keeping with the crop festivals which marked annual bounties from Africa, India, Asia, Europe and South America. These times exist in the recesses of history, and were celebrated with gratitude.  In the rendering of the first thanksgiving, the Indians taught the Europeans settlers another set of basic survival skills and (like Tisquantum and Samoset) served as diplomatic messengers to Native American nations. In the end, the Indians who survived disease, war and famine, were forcibly removed from their land, literally decimated in particular areas, subjected to a form of acculturation dedicated to eradicating their own heritage and culture; while the Europeans went on to be celebrated as pioneers, survivalists, and trailblazers.

Chief Sitting Bull

In contemporary society Thanksgiving is a ritual of mass consumption, an invention of American culture less concerned with historical remembrance and more connected to consumerism.  We also embrace rituals of counterfactual nostalgia where we have constructed real and imagined efforts, lofty ideas of interracial, intercultural, and inter-communal sharing. But the American holiday season, especially the period of Thanksgiving, is criticized for precluding critical discussions about the intrusion and conquest of Native Americans and the confiscation of their lands. As Aisha Ali noted in her 2008 article “Dismantling Thanksgiving myths: a Native American Story”, we tend to ignore the big picture of this phenomenon. Thanksgiving then becomes something else—a symbol for the working class, and how a multiplicity of cultures chooses to engage the holiday. Ultimately, and beyond notions of “retail therapy,” the holiday embodies how generations choose to celebrate the meaning of family. The issue of family engagement has become so important that a movement began to designate the time as National Family History day (November 2004).  Families are encouraged to use the time to flesh out personal histories for future generations. Beyond, thanksgiving/thanks taking myths, historians have surmised that it is families in communities that have decided how they will differentiate a holiday shielded by myth, yet encased in blood. Thanksgiving has become a kaleidoscopic event that engages the senses, especially taste, smell, touch, and sight—but, if you will, rarely the “sense” of deep thought.

We are a multifaceted nation, with stories and themes that are unique and universal. As society changes so should our notions of what it means to discuss historical trauma (such as genocide) and achievement. Borrowing from Dr. Karenga’s perennial sentiment about African peoples, we have the chance to choose the best of what it means to be human in the world. This is a good opportunity to map our world in ways that do justice to all of our ancestors. As the 2011 year ends and the nation pursues domestic perfection and traditions of family, foodways, consumerism, and hopefully public service, we are obliged to consider how we remember the spoils of history. How do we communicate across cultures?  How do we make right, an abyss of agreed-upon wrongs? How do we come to believe that we can ask the difficult questions? The holidays, and especially Thanksgiving, are political ideas. In another time and place, 1621 would be remembered as Tisquantum’s Day, and we would give thanks to Native Americans in this particular instance. We would thank those devastated by the aims of colonial ambition, who in spite of everything took enough pity on others to offer help to strangers in need; a people who, after the peace treaties were violated, entered North American history as takers, rather than givers.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina