by Jeff Fecke • Over at Alas, Julie the Girl Detective has a thoughtful post about the American Thanksgiving mythos, the enduring myth that Sarah Josepha Hale* created in the pages of Godey’s Ladies Book.
You should read the whole thing, but this is the question I wanted to respond to:
I’m all for a harvest festival that allows me the time to see friends and family living 400 miles away, but why do we have to perpetuate such a pernicious falsehood? What justification is there for this?
I’d like to posit an answer: It’s because we’re guilty as sin, and we know it.
By “we,” of course, I’m referring to white Americans, the folks who came up with the myth that the Wôpanâak and the Pilgrims were fast friends, working together to build a nation. It flatters us to think that we were welcomed by the indigenous peoples of this land, makes us feel like it was okay that we took it from them, piece by bloody piece, inch by bloody inch, body by bloody body. After all, they invited us in — they were asking for it.
The genocide of native peoples is hardly a unique event in human history — there have been many genocides in our past, and there will be more in our future — but it’s our genocide. This isn’t the slaughter of the Armenians or the Holocaust. This is death we caused, through disease and war and deprivation. This is land we ethnically cleansed, from sea to shining sea. This land is not yours nor mine; it was theirs. I write this on Lakota land.
The first recorded Thanksgiving in American history was in Connecticut Colony in 1637, celebrating the end of the Pequot War, and the genocide of the Pequot tribe. Those few Pequot who survived that war were either sold into slavery or fled into diaspora. But we don’t celebrate that because we’re not proud of that history. Like slavery, it is an indelible stain on our nation’s soul, one that nothing can ever erase.
This is why we cling to the myth — because we don’t want to believe our great-great-great-grandparents were murderers of a kind with the Nazis or the Hutus. We want to believe that our forbearers were good people, people who were kind to those with different skin and different languages than theirs. We want to believe that our ancestors were generous people, people who shared their bounty with others. We want to believe that our nation really was founded to be the shining city on a hill that Mather said it was.
But our nation was not founded by demigods. It was founded by people just as prone to prejudice and hate as we are today — only without the intervening four hundred years of wisdom we have gained just to get to the point where most of us believe genocide is evil — with the occasional exception.
We do ourselves no favors by clinging to the myth; believing our forebearers were good people who just happened to take over a mysteriously empty North America allows us to continue to hate immigrants, allows us to ignore the death toll in Iraq, allows us to continue believing that People Like Us are somehow superior to Other People. Better to accept that our ancestors, like all peoples’ ancestors, were flawed, and capable of the same kinds of evil that we ourselves would be capable of if not for one hundred years of concerted efforts by goo-goo liberals to drive home the point that genocide is evil. Accepting that would allow us to recognize the hatred in ourselves, and to work to eliminate it. But that’s hard, and uncomfortable. Much easier to simply hold to the fiction that there was a time, long ago, when Native Americans and American colonists sat down and broke bread together over a hearty meal, thankful for the bounty and for each other’s company. It’s a nice story, and unlike the genocide that followed the Puritan colonization, it never happened. And that makes all the difference.
*Along with Thanksgiving, she is also the creator of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Originally published December 2