Friday, November 29, 2013

Mythmaking Thanksgiving

As we recover from copious amounts of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

According to historian James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:
our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out?

Importantly, the above-mentioned quote lacks historical context. Think about it: why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America. Lastly, feel free to comment on the traditional painting embedded in this post as another contributor to the Thanksgiving mythology.


Erik L. said...

When looking at the painting above, a few details really stand out to me. The first thing I noticed was the woman with the tray of food. She is clearly giving the Native Americans the food. I found it interesting that the painting would portray the Native Americans as the ones recieving the food and the Pilgrims as the ones with the abundance. As I recall, the Pilgrims were the ones who struggled to produce enough food. The Native Americans had been surviving in America for hundreds of years and in that time they undoubtedly learned how to how to live fairly comftorably. In fact, I remember learning that if it weren't for the Native Americans a lot more of the early settlers would have died because the Europeans didn't know how to farm/gather food in America. Lastly, this food that is being given to the Native Americans has been harvested on land that used to be soley inhabited by Native Americans. So in a way, the Pilgrims are only giving the Native Americans the a portion of the feast that is already theirs.

The other detail I noticed was that, while all the Pilgrims are standing or seated at the table the Native Americans are sitting on the ground. The white people are portrayed as literally above the Native Americans. I think that this detail of having to sit on the ground makes them appear to be less civilized than the Pilgrims.

Both these details made me think about made me think about who would've been responsible for creating the painting. Although, I don't know when it was created, I think it is safe to say that it was created by a white person due to the way he/she clearly favors the white people over the Native American people.

Sara H. said...

I think that often times the origin of Thanksgiving is forgotten and/or not talked about in depth because a lot of people may not care about that part of it as much now. They focus on the present, and they like the idea of having another holiday that can bring the whole family together. Also, who doesn't love the food? I had always been told that when the pilgrims came they decided to have a big feast with everyone. But, in all honesty, I didn't really pay as much attention to how it really happened, because as a child I didn't care. At least for my family, we focus on cooking, who's coming, decorations, and stuff like that. It seems like for a lot of people you mostly think of the present, and not the past. I think that the past/history of Thanksgiving should be brought up and focused on partly, but I think in reality it just doesn't really happen.

Audrey K. said...

The quote from "Mourt's Relation" gives the impression that the amount of food at the gathering for the whole "Company" was not very much. They all shared a few fowls and deer, as well as the harvest. The Pilgrims and the Indians were thankful for the little food that they had because everyone came together and gave as much food as they could. This differs from Thanksgiving now. I agree with Sara in that people are more preoccupied with the food and decorations of the Holiday. Compared to the original Thanksgiving meal, today, people call the gathering a "feast" because of how much food there is. I think that the gathering described in the quotes is based on true appreciation, and now,Thanksgiving has become more of an excuse to eat a lot of food and see people who you haven't seen in a while.

To add onto Erik's analysis of the picture, the positioning of the Indians makes them look like children. Their legs are crossed, their backs are hunched, and they sit in a small clump like children would for story time. Behind the Indians that is taking food, another Indian is looking at his/her spoon with big eyes. Again, he/she looks like a child, in awe of the food on the spoon. In the back corner, I believe that the woman with darker hair is also an Indian, and to the right of her is a Pilgrim woman. The Pilgrim woman is using her hand to direct the Native American to sit on the ground with her people. To support Erik's theory, the Pilgrims are directing the Indians physically lower than themselves, and this shows the dominance of the Pilgrims that appears in this picture.

Josh Sussman said...

I also agree with Sara. I think that it is easy to forget the true reason why we all come together as friends and family for Thanksgiving. I think it is interesting that Thanksgiving was made an official holiday in 1863 during the Civil War. I would think that by that time the holiday was almost only celebrated by white people and not Native Americans. Though this is mostly speculation, I know that the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced thousands of Native Indians to leave their homes and move to reservations; this is also called the Trail of Tears. So, I think that many of the previous commenters are correct in that the whites in the Thanksgiving story are portrayed as the heroes for giving food to the Natives, however, what they were really giving in a way resembles the last supper because the whites soon after destroyed most of Native American civilization. What now remains is a sad, depressed people riddled with poverty and alcoholism.

Callie Walsh said...

I agree with Erik that the photo portrays the Native Americans as the ones receiving food from kind, gentle looking Pilgrims, and growing up this IS what I believed happened (just like how I believed Columbus was the good guy).

In reality; however, I now know that it was the other way around. The Native Americans (who had been harvesting the land successfully for years) were the ones who offered food to the starving Europeans.

Yet why is it that I was taught the "wrong" version? Why do teachers refuse to mention the fact that 10 to 30 million Natives were killed at the hands of European invasion and colonialism?

Perhaps this is because HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY THE WINNERS. And in this case, the winners were the Pilgrims. Think about it, how many times have the Native Americans been glorified in our American History textbooks? It seems to me that we have pushed Native Americans out of our textbooks in order to glorify those who now rule this nation and represent our dominant culture. Like we learned earlier this year, History is not made, History is constructed. And our history of Thanksgiving and the relationship between the Native Americans and Pilgrims is disgustingly biased.

Madi M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madi M said...

I was thinking the very same thing as Callie when I saw this bias painting of the first Thanksgiving about the fact that history is written by the winners. The pilgrims managed to conquer the Native American's land, with much aid from the plague, but since the pilgrims destroyed their enemy brutally they were the ones who got to tell the story.

This is very much the same as the way children are taught the story of Christopher Columbus. I was taught that Columbus was this amazing hero who discovered America and started to colonize it to make it the perfect country we have today. However 99% of that is not true or stretched, partly because we as a society like to spare the children the gory details, and also partly because the hero portrayal of Columbus, our "founding father," is what we WANT to believe. It's not till much later that I learned the real horrific sides of the Columbus' invasion into the Native American's territory.

I think everyone's observations about the painting are very insightful as well. I would just like to point out that going off of Audrey's comment about the Native Americans looking like a group of children, this is backed up by the fact that there is a small child wandering around in front of the group of Native Americans on "their part of the ground," not seated at the table. Also that happens to be the place where the dog is roaming, leading me to connect the Native Americans's eating space not only to the place for small children but even for animals. THe fact that they are seated lower than the table of pilgrims amongst the children and animals is very degrading.

William E. said...

@Madi, I think you made a really good point when you said that only the pilgrims were the ones around able to tell the story because in fact they were.

As Bolos points out, there is only a limited record of the first Thanksgiving and honestly its likely that there were some things that happened that we just don't know about. in many instances, people like to write history with the writer being the protagonist of the story itself. Its possible that this is the same thing that happened in 1621. The pilgrims could have written records showing them as the innocents settlers with no intention for the Native Americans to be affected at all.

In addition, i'm not completely sure about this but its possible that at the time, historians couldn't read any sorts of records the Native Americans had or the Native Americans had no records of the time period at all.

Anonymous said...

I think that it is interesting that Thanksgiving is such a big holiday, even though we barely have any records of what happened in 1621 during the first Thanksgiving.

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