Thanksgiving complications (like genocide)

By , November 26, 2010 11:57 pm

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you living in the United States.

Thanksgiving has never been a huge part of my year. Part of it, undoubtedly, stems from my long-time vegetarianism. Likewise, my family has never been huge Thanksgiving-ers: we have family gatherings, but never the stereotypical blowouts, with dozens of visiting family members and food piled to the ceiling. This past week, my mom and I went to a family friend’s – something we’ve done the past few years – and had good food and good company. Some years we’ll mention things we’re thankful for, some years (this one included) we’ll forget in the midst of eating and socializing.

Coincidentally, I chose this week to start rereading Lies My Teacher Told Me, a great book about how US history is taught (and more often mis-taught) to high school students. From the Amazon description: “Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these [high school history] books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.” I first read this book in high school – it was actually suggested by my awesome US AP history teacher – and quickly fell in love with it. There’s a new, post-9/11 version that I’ve been meaning to pick up (my version is from 1996) but it’s a great book even without the last 15 years included.

I say I “coincidentally” started rereading it, though, because it has a whole chapter on the Thanksgiving story.

The traditional version is pretty well laid out at

When it was autumn the fathers gathered the barley and wheat and corn that they had planted, and found that it had grown so well that they would have quite enough for the long winter that was coming.

“Let us thank God for it all,” they said. “It is He who has made the sun shine and the rain fall and the corn grow.” So they thanked God in their homes and in their little church; the fathers and the mothers and the children thanked Him.

“Then,” said the Pilgrim mothers, “let us have a great Thanksgiving party, and invite the friendly Indians, and all rejoice together.”

So they had the first Thanksgiving party, and a grand one it was! Four men went out shooting one whole day, and brought back so many wild ducks and geese and great wild turkeys that there was enough for almost a week. There was deer meat also, of course, for there were plenty of fine deer in the forest. Then the Pilgrim mothers made the corn and wheat into bread and cakes, and they had fish and clams from the sea besides.

Except it wasn’t quite like that. Lies My Teacher Told Me clearly lays out how…

  • The Pilgrims (who only numbered 35 of the ~100 travelers on the Mayflower) robbed from Indian houses and grave sites (page 91)
  • Benefited from the spread of European diseases (primarily smallpox) (mentioned throughout the chapter, but graphically on 80-81)
  • Squanto (“Friend of the Pilgrims”) had been abducted as a child by a British slaver and returned to his village to find all the villagers dead of said smallpox (page 92)
  • Almost all the traditionally Thanksgiving-y foods are native to North America and would have been unfamiliar to the Pilgrims without the Indians showing them how to make it (page 95)
  • And perhaps most ridiculously, the “new” holiday of Thanksgiving was already celebrated by cultures throughout North Americaand indeed the world – as the friggin’ Autumnal harvest! (page 95)

Passover, a Jewish holiday about escape from slavery in Egypt, has recently begun to sit poorly with me. The story of Passover talks over and over about how God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” to keep the Jews in bondage until their release would be more dramatic. (My interpretation, not the common Biblical one…) There is a single line in the Passover service about the Egyptians who died when God killed their first-born sons, but not much. As such, the celebration of the Jews escape from Egypt – which took so long only because God was kind of being a dick – is unsettling to me.

Thanksgiving has begun to take on the same meaning for me: a co-opting of slaughter and genocide, turned ’round to a celebration of Good triumphing over Evil. (Or, at the very least, Manifest Destiny in action.)

None of this is intended to discourage people from holding celebrations on Thanksgiving. The concept of giving thanks is an important one, and not something that should be discarded. But I’m certainly planning to take time next Thanksgiving and honor the untold story of The Strong walking over those who couldn’t defend themselves, and I encourage y’all to do the same.

One Response to “Thanksgiving complications (like genocide)”

  1. RadDyke says:

    That, for me, is my biggest problem with Thanksgiving. What’s interesting is even PC society seems to like it. Because when you get to Columbus day, there’s organizing around anti-imperialism and the like. But yet…where is all that around Thanksgiving?

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