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Conflicted feelings about Thanksgiving

November 24, 2011

I have serious issues with the contemporary form that Thanksgiving takes. I used to refuse to celebrate the holiday altogether. I’m not the only one who has refused to celebrate, even some celebrities have opted out. Thanksgiving is touted as two cultures coming together to break bread and share gratitude. Which would be great if that’s how it ended. But it’s not. This peace and brotherhood between the Pilgrims and the Indians lasted only 16 years, until in 1637 the Massachusetts governor ordered the massacre of THOUSANDS of Perquot Indian men, women and children. That part isn’t included in the fuzzy-feeling Thanksgiving specials, is it?

My feelings about Thanksgiving can easily be summed up by this quote from Willow Rosenberg of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the season four Thanksgiving episode, Pangs: “Thanksgiving isn’t about the blending of two cultures. It’s about one culture wiping out another! And then they make animated specials about the part with the maize and the big, big belt buckles. They don’t show you the next scene, where all the bison die, and Squanto takes a musketball in the stomach!” The last part isn’t entirely true; what really happened is that Squanto was sold into slavery years earlier. That’s how he knew English and could communicate with the Pilgrims. Please, for the love of the Gods, don’t say “Well, I guess there is a reason for everything.” I’ve heard some people say that Squanto’s slavery was divinely arranged, so that later in his life he would be equipped to help the Pilgrims. And it infuriates me. Ethnocentric much?

Have you ever heard of a Native American celebrating Thanksgiving? I hadn’t, so I decided to do some research. Turns out some Native Americans in Massachusetts fast and hold what they call a National Day of Mourning :


To some, the “First Thanksgiving” presents a distorted picture of the history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People across America is nowhere represented.”

To be fair, I did find a few examples of Native Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving, such as in this essay by Jacqueline Keeler. But her story, and her interpretation of Thanksgiving, is not what we white children were taught in public schools:

In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.

I see, in the “First Thanksgiving” story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.

Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.

Even putting the genocide of the Native Americans aside, there is the problem of the rampant consumerism of Thanksgiving. Like most other holidays, Thanksgiving has been co-opted by big corporations. Christmas, of course, has been much more commercialized than Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem. Check out Andrew Bowen’s post over at Project Conversion about the consumerism and wastefulness of Americans on Thanksgiving:

If Jainism has taught me anything this month, it’s how to do more and be happy with less. According to this article, the average American will consume about 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving day. That’s over twice the daily recommended amount. What’s more is that we consume most of these calories while sitting around watching football games and parades on television. But it’s okay, we need our rest for the impending 24 melee of shopping waiting for us the next day. Gobble, gobble…

I thought about these traditions yesterday and was utterly disgusted and saddened. I thought about the over 600,000 homeless individuals who had nowhere to celebrate these days of plenty. Then I thought about the 20.5 million people who are in extreme poverty. There’s also the enormous amount of food we waste in this country alone–about 30 million freaking tons of it a year. Even with all of this, our United States of America still boasts an over 60% overweight and obesity rate.”

However, I’m preparing to go to my boyfriend’s family’s annual Thanksgiving celebration tomorrow. Is that hypocritical? Maybe. I’ll smile and be nice and make small talk. I’ll bow my head politely while they pray their God to bless the food (even through I know they will never allow me to bless the food in name of Demeter and Hestia, or to thank the turkey for giving up its life). I’m very conflicted, and I think I always will be. On the one hand, it’s an admirable celebration of family and community, and it’s always a good thing to count your blessings and be grateful. I actually enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the history of violence and oppression that Native peoples have suffered (and to some extent are still suffering), and a part of me can’t help but feel guilty. Not for the actual crimes. Although they were horrible, I don’t feel personally guilty for them, as I’m not the one who committed them. But here I am, continuing the tradition of celebrating a holiday based on a lie. Yes, history is important. You can’t completely divorce a thing from it’s origins. I’m not saying don’t celebrate Thanksgiving; I’m just saying, maybe it’s time to stop perpetrating the lies and to acknowledge it’s dark history. But I guess you can’t put that on a Hallmark greeting card.

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One comment

  1. [...] Blake has similarly conflicted feelings about it: My feelings about Thanksgiving can easily be summed up by this quote from Willow [...]



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