Last Thanksgiving President Bush flew off to visit our troops in Bagdad. In a stay of only a few hours his photographers snapped pictures for the media of the President bearing a glazed turkey. No one ate the turkey . . . it was a stage prop. The President’s political use of this traditional holiday began with the invention of a Thanksgiving mythology almost four centuries ago.
Thanksgiving Day has become our most treasured holiday. Families gather, eat turkey, and count their blessings. The annual presidential proclamation celebrates this country’s early European pioneers who survived their first winter in Massachusetts in 1621.
What is celebrated has little relationship to what actually happened: the Pilgrims arrived from England on the Mayflower in 1620 and were able to avoid starvation and death because the Wampanoug nation shared their food with the newcomers. What Europeans should commemorate is the kindness and generosity of the Wampanoug nation. Given the ultimate result of their hospitality, Native Americans do not to celebrate the day.
In 1621 Governor William Bradford of Plymouth proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for his colony — giving thanks not to the Wampanougs but to his colonists and their white Christian God. Bradford’s “spin” on events was that Europeans had staved off hunger and survived through their own skills, bravery and robust determination.
Bradford’s mutilation of the truth cannot be merely chalked up to European arrogance and impudence, though it borrows from each. His was an early example of “Eurothink.” Europeans saw people of color — no matter how much they helped, how much they knew, or how vital their contributions were to survival — as undeserving of recognition.
Governor Bradford cast Thanksgiving as a victory for fellowship since he claimed that white newcomer and dark-skinned Indigenous inhabitant sat down together to share bread, turkey and other treats. The English, in his version, invited the Native Americans who provided the feast to join the victory over famine. Were the original Americans were invited to sit down and share the meal with the newcomers? Since the English classified them as inferiors, if present at all, it was more likely they were asked to serve the food.
Once the English colonists gained military strength any tendencies to share with or extend courtesy toward their Native hosts disappeared. Colonial leaders became more aggressive. One night in 1637 and without provocation, Governor Bradford, a devout Christian who saw his colony locked in mortal combat with people he considered infidels, ordered his soldiers to attack a Pequot Indian village of sleeping men women and children. Bradford described the massacre in these words:
It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same and horrible was the stink and stench thereof. But the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice and they [the Massachusetts militiamen] gave praise thereof to God.
Bradford appears in history texts as a hero who helped his people survive. The popular Dictionary of American History summarized his rule in these words:
He was a firm, determined man and an excellent leader; kept relations with the Indians on friendly terms; tolerant toward newcomers and new religions. . . . [P. 77]
The authoritative Columbia Encyclopedia [P. 351] states of Governor Bradford: “He maintained friendly relations with the Native Americans.”
Reverend Increase Mather was the colony’s spiritual leader and a distinguished figure in early U.S. history. His response to the tragedy was to asked his congregation to thank God that “on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to hell.”
Thanksgiving Day distorts American history by eliminating the contributions of the Wampanougs, and stokes white patriotism by claiming Pilgrims possessed skills, courage and elevated motives. This myth also seeks to cover up the genocidal brutality Europe’s colonial leaders unleashed — in the name of their God — on a gentle, unoffending and helpful people whose land they occupied.
The Mayflower, renamed the Meijbloom (Dutch for Mayflower), continued to make history. It reached Africa and became one of the first European ships to chain and carry enslaved African men, women and children to the Americas.
Thanksgiving should be a time to commemorate the many contributions of Indigenous Americans and African Americans to this country’s development.
We should venerate the people of color who became our first freedom-fighters, and their ability to survive a genocidal onslaught that began 500 years ago.
Copyright 2004 by WILLIAM LOREN KATZ