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The Thanksgiving Dilemma/ Reconciling the Fine Line Between Celebrating Gratitude and Commemorating Colonization

Once a month, in an effort to talk about something other than our kids when we get together, a group of friends and I meet to talk about a book. At our last meeting, where we discussed Killers of the Flower Moon, one of the women, a second generation Italian-American, told us the story of the holiday known as Columbus Day as told to her by her grandfather. Of course I knew Columbus was Italian, but I never realized why that mattered in the context of the Columbus Day tribute.

She started by reminding us that the first waves of Italian immigrants to America came from Sicily and other southern regions, and they tended to have darker coloring than the people descended from the British. They arrived on the tails of emancipation, as African Americans began to slowly transition to work for pay. After a century of slavery, the newly freed men and women abandoned some of the more unsavory work they’d been forced to do, and the Italians, who were the newest dark-skinned people in America, took them as the only jobs they could get. 

Following the same impossible paradox that is applied to Latinos today, Italians were scapegoated for being considered both lazy and simultaneously “taking jobs away from Americans.” The anti-immigrant sentiment in the late 1800s was similar in its rhetoric to what we see today, but an armed militia took things to their most gruesome conclusion when in New Orleans in 1891 and angry mob lynched 11 Italian immigrants for a crime they didn’t commit.

The chief of police in New Orleans, a man named Hennessy, was shot and killed by unknown assailants. Witnesses claimed he uttered a racial slur against Italians as he lay dying and that was interpreted as the identification of his shooter. Eleven men were accused of committing the crime and indicted. Some of them had their day in court and were acquitted; others, did not have the chance to stand trial and were being held in jail when the news of the acquittals spread through the city.

The result — an angry mob of misinformed vigilantes stormed the jail to kill and mutilate all of the wrongfully accused, including the ones who had been acquitted and those who’d not been tried. Newspapers printed news of the atrocity as if it had been a legitimate revenge against criminals and the entire city became swept up in a self-righteous defense of the misguided mob. Though this was not the first time a group of immigrants was vilified and horrifying so, not the only time the masses turned to violence and abandoned due process, the city of New Orleans didn’t issue an apology until now, 120 years after the fact. 

Instead, the mob’s motivation was justified by the authorities and the only thing that was done to try to smooth out relations between the Italian and U.S. governments was to institute the first celebration of Columbus day in 1896, in San Francisco, and was conceived as a celebration of Italian culture, a burnt offering to this badly bruised community. Soon, Colorado approved a statewide celebration of the day, and other states followed until it was declared a national holiday. But the thing is, at its inception, Columbus Day was not about the man or about his “accomplishments;” it was a sheepish and passive apology for a hideous crime perpetrated on the Italian community and an insufficient attempt at drawing an old and round about connection between Italy and the U.S. 

Over the course of time, as this particularly ugly stain on the history of the South was best left forgotten, we started to unconsciously imbue the figure of the day, who was really more of a placeholder than a hero in this context, with the attributes of someone who positively contributed to history, culture, and society. In truth, the idea of Columbus and his henchmen “discovering” something that has already been in existence for millennia, is infantile at best. When we add to that the notion that his “discovery” resulted in the claiming of another people’s land for the Spanish monarchs and the slow and steady drain on the natural and human resources of the region, we realize we were wrong.

This year has shown a dramatic push toward reinserting the whole picture back into the history we tell. First, Columbus himself never landed on U.S. soil and the havoc he would wreak affected mainly Central and South America. Most importantly, though, we now know that Columbus’ arrival in America arrested the development of the cultures that already lived on those lands, resulting in the seizing of their rightful property, the enslavement of their people, and the rape of their women. 500 years later and these nations never fully recovered, much of their folklore and artifacts destroyed and forgotten.

As we integrate this ugly side of the same story back into the narrative, many people feel strongly enough to rename this holiday, restoring it to its original use as a spotlight on a marginalized culture. This is how Columbus Day is slowly turning into Indigenous People’s Day, as more local governments agree to change the nomenclature. Just like psychologists recommend giving the injured child the attention rather than trying to discipline the child who caused the violence in the first place, we get nowhere by debating whether Columbus deserves recognition. Columbus is long gone, and the ones who need the recognition, if not straight up reparations, are the Italians for suffering the lynching and our Native Americans, who have only survived through their steely resolve and perseverance. 

Something very similar happens with Thanksgiving. Given the inhumanity of the Pilgrims’ actions towards the Native Americans who welcomed them to Massachusetts Bay, it is no wonder that history has largely tried to focus on aspects of that “first Thanksgiving” that are positive and uplifting. Few would bicker against the notion of having a day of gratitude and reflection. Then there’s the fact that the first white people who landed in North America were searching for religious freedom and tolerance, which makes the Pilgrims’ voyage differently intended than Columbus’ venture, which was for-profit by design.

But how much of the Thanksgiving mythology that we are taught at school focuses either on the aspect of tolerance or on the human privilege to reflect and feel gratitude? Most of us grew up around images of the Pilgrims’ austere fashion and the great suffering they endured on their voyage and in landing at a punishingly cold time, devoid of the lushness of spring and summer. Most importantly, the other party crucial to the story, the Native Americans, are presented as truly kind and generous, yes, but also as orientalized caricatures, tomahawked and headdressed for our enjoyment.

Looking to the origin of the narrative or the story of the “first” Thanksgiving, historians have identified that the first time the Pilgrims held a celebration was in 1621, when they rejoiced in their first successful harvest. Though we can be sure that table did not feature a roast turkey, pie, or dressing, it likely had elements of corn and potatoes, some of the first crops to grow in America under the watch of the Europeans. On this occasion, there is evidence that the Wampanoag tribe was included in the celebration, perhaps in payment for their assistance in understanding the agricultural potential of their own land and passing along the information.  

In 1637, there was another big banquet, but this time the Pilgrims were celebrating killing 700 members of the Pequot tribe, which set off a war that nearly erased them from existence. The narrative of the first Thanksgiving meal shared with Native Americans is some sort of composite of these two separate celebrations. Being that one of them is a massacre that nearly completed a genocide, means we need to look at this a lot more critically.

The next Thanksgiving didn’t happen for another 200+ years. The United States still needed to become a nation by revolting against England and then they would grapple amongst themselves with a civil war of nearly five years. A woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale lobbied President Lincoln hard to institute this holiday, and he did in 1863. The idea was to create a moment of family togetherness, especially for the soldiers who had been fighting in the Civil War, sometimes across enemy lines from their own family members. That first modern Thanksgiving, then, was also a temporary truce within a larger backdrop of ongoing war, not so different from the relative peace in Massachusetts Bay in 1621.

Lincoln decreed the last Thursday of November to be the yearly return of Thanksgiving, and so it was until in 1939, FDR moved the holiday to the third Thursday instead, giving Americans a longer holiday shopping period as they continued to recover from the Great Depression. In 1970, in Plymouth, MA, Wamsutta Frank James started to observe Thanksgiving as a day of mourning in honor of the massacre the Pequot tribe suffered and the racism and discrimination Native Americans have continued to endure. 

No one, not even Native Americans, is looking to erase Thanksgiving or do away with remembering the moment in history. They don’t begrudge white people the freedom to get together, say grace, be thankful, eat turkey, and have political disagreements with their family members. The offensive part, the portion that we must re-examine is the belief that any of that has to do with honoring or preserving Native American culture. It doesn’t. It marks the beginning of the murder and rape and displacement and disenfranchisement perpetrated against them. 

To relegate that story to a long-ago history and pretend that reinserting it a pointless exercise in political correctness and revisionism is an act of aggression. It is the admission that the discrimination and sexual violence and land fraud and marginalization that still exists and poisons our Native American communities still doesn’t matter to white America.

So what can we do? Stop celebrating Thanksgiving? Suppression won’t be the right path for everyone, especially the generations of Americans entrenched in the tradition of gathering and having a meal. There is nothing explicitly wrong with that practice, but rather it’s what is omitted that makes the celebration problematic. The answer is not to censor or suppress but to decolonize the holiday, to stop passing over the dark aspects of a cultural encounter in which the newcomer overtook the rightful owners of the land and claimed it for themselves. 

As with most social ills, education is key. Passing along the information about what really happened on that first Thanksgiving, filling in the blanks of history for our children with the truth is the first step. There are even resources to consult if your child comes home from school having learned the whitewashed history of Thanksgiving, ways to engage educators, and ways in which teaching your children the real story can inspire them to educate their peers in turn.

Rather than researching modern Thanksgiving recipes, you can research the historical footways of Native Americans and try to include some of their heritage crops in your version of the meal. Of course, addressing any problematic or racist trope that you come across, like calling the indigenous population “Indians” or tolerating Halloween costumes that exoticize and exaggerate Native stereotypes, is a must. Even making room at your table for the discussion of the Native American point of view or taking a cue from the removal of Columbus from a celebration that has nothing to do with him, is progress over telling and retelling the Pilgrim narrative. 

These choices are the privilege of whites. For Native people, there are alternative celebrations. Wamsutta Frank James initiated this process when he declared Thanksgiving Day for whites to be a day of mourning for Native Americans. In 2009, President Obama declared the day after Thanksgiving to be Native American Heritage Day. Each year, on Alcatraz island on the west coast, Unthanksgiving Day or The Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony is celebrated as a tribute to the lives lost and squandered by racism and ostracism. For many Native Americans and their allies, celebrating the Pilgrim way is simply not an option. 

These reinsertions of the Native American part of the story back into the mythology we mindlessly practice every year are a good way to begin, but it is only that — a beginning. 

The idea that all Native Americans were massacred by the colonists is untrue. A majority of the original owners of America were ruthlessly treated, but not entirely exterminated. Through the American system of reservations their presence has been contained and kept remote from the center of modern society. 

This has led to the systematic oppression of almost 3 million full Native Americans, who, against all odds, are finally starting to enroll in college and graduate school and becoming homeowners at a greatly increasing rate. Despite that bit of optimistic news, Native Americans demonstrate double and triple the rates of death due to alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, injuries, and suicide. Native youths are 62% more likely to die by suicide than their counterparts and do so at the highest rate of any ethnic group in the country. This is heartbreaking. 

Look, there’s no need to throw your turkey out the window or uninvite your family. The key to making Thanksgiving feasible, reasonable, and appropriate for our collective future is to give it similar treatment as we have to Columbus Day. It is time to educate ourselves and others, reinsert the Native American perspective into a story that is supposed to be about them, and maybe a new name. Every day we are alive and well should be Thanksgiving. And on the third Thursday in November should be all about the truth. 

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