Twas the week before Thanksgiving and America just needed a break. We probably all need a ‘time out’ kind of break after the election. I’ve seen these shirts that say things like ‘I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry,’ or ‘I’m sorry for what I said when company was coming over.’ I think we’re all going to need shirts—or at least social media profile pictures—that say, ‘I’m sorry for what I said while they were STILL counting the votes.’ And we are getting a break soon, Thanksgiving, a family holiday where we will either remember how much we love our family in spite of politics, or finally finish each other off with grandma’s silver serving spoon and the electric carving knife.
Yep, it’s time for a break—especially the kind of break where you’re supposed to take stock of all you’re grateful for and give thanks. In spite of the fact that the whole ‘First Thanksgiving’ turned out to be the product of a few hundred years’ worth of embellished, revisionist history that is much more palatable than the truth that the first European settlers in America stole from and lied to the people already living here, the Wampanoag—we can still put the last Thursday in November to good use as a day of giving thanks. I loved the whole ‘pilgrims and Indians’ storyline as a kid and was very resistant to listening to anything that might take the shine off such a feel-good story. But it turns out we can still tell the truth about Thanksgiving and have our turkey too.
I remember thinking the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were THE FIRST non-native people to set foot in America, but besides the Spanish and Dutch and Vikings—there were already even British fishermen who fished off the coast of Massachusetts for decades before the Pilgrims landed. Once their ships were full of cod, they would venture inland for firewood and fresh water—and maybe kidnap a few natives to sell into slavery back in Europe. It was probably during one of these forays that they transmitted some devastating illness like the bubonic plague (although pox and influenza are still considered possibilities) to the people they met. In less than three years, 90-96 percent of those living in southern New England were dead.
These epidemics meant that the British weren’t up against much as far as the Native Americans were concerned for the first 50 years they were in America and helped bring about the friendly reception the Pilgrims at Plymouth received from the Wampanoags. With their numbers so depleted, their leaders needed to ally with the Pilgrims to ward off attack from the Narragansetts west of them. With all this COVID-19 experience under our own modern-day belts, we can all understand how an epidemic can make for strange bedfellows—remember back in April when the dude on Facebook with a line on where to find toilet paper was everybody’s best friend?
How else to explain the Wampanoag wanting to have anything to do with a group of people who spent their second full day in Massachusetts digging up and stealing the corn and beans planted by the Wampanoag, as well as taking trays, bowls, plates, and a bow from a grave before covering the body up again? The Pilgrims were grave robbers and squatters.
We like thinking about the Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together to a huge feast to celebrate the harvest and their friendship because it makes us feel good—but is it really doing us any good if it isn’t true? While they did have a meal together, the story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag’s relationship is filled with murder, thievery, broken promises, and sickness—it’s not exactly the stuff of elementary school play dreams.
The story of how it evolved into the American origin myth we all learned and loved as kids is a whole other twisted road. But one fact I learned recently seems prescient for us today. While the indigenous peoples of this land had been observing autumn harvest celebrations to give thanks for centuries before the Europeans showed up, our modern-day version of Thanksgiving has only been around since Abraham Lincoln made it an official holiday in 1863. It was a socio-political move designed to bring the North and South back together—to reunite families that a war and politics and differing beliefs about the direction of the future of our country had torn down the middle.
I haven’t read anything about how effective Lincoln’s plan was. I imagine it was a process, like it would be for the people of any country after years of fighting. Families with diametrically opposed beliefs don’t just say, ‘Pass the squash casserole, please,’ and suddenly find themselves in perfect political harmony, but sitting down at the same table seems like as good a place as any to give it a shot.
Over 70% of Mississippians who voted this month voted in favor of a new state flag. The story of how we ended up voting on a flag with a magnolia on it in 2020 to replace one with a symbol of hate on it from 1894 is its own long and twisted road. We are still the same Mississippians we were before the flag vote—but maybe that twisted road has led us to a unique understanding of how teaching a revisionist history of your ancestors’ misdeeds can lead to problems in the future. We can keep telling the First Thanksgiving myth and hope we don’t choke on it, or we can acknowledge the hard truths of our country’s origins and realize that admitting it wasn’t pretty doesn’t change who we are today.
Thanksgiving can still be a day of turkey and football and naps and family if we tell the truth about how we started. We can teach our children how to show their gratitude and teach them that the Pilgrims were brave to set out for new lives and that they stole from graves and broke their word. We will still be the same people we were before admitting there are shameful aspects of our country’s past—just more honest.