It is commonly taught and widely believed that Thanksgiving is the anniversary of a feast between the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1621, and the native population. Yet many of us know by now that the first such feast didn’t take place in 1621, let alone on the last Thursday of November. In fact, there are multiple instances of great celebrations held by groups of wearied settlers in different parts of the country.
The Thanksgiving feast is constructed as a peaceful alliance among people of different races celebrating their wealth and common blessings. Yet the Pilgrim settlers, along with all other groups of settlers, have a complicated history with the Native Americans. The Wampanoag suffered a population drop after contracting leptospirosis from earlier settlers, and in an attempted alliance with the Pilgrims, signed over significant lands to them. Their alliance proved fruitful in the Wampanoag’s struggles with the Narragansett. Thus one could say that Thanksgiving, if attributed to the feast in 1621, is in a sense a celebration of alliance, but certainly not of peace. Which begs the question: how many holidays, rituals, and artifacts meant to bring or celebrate peace and understanding really promote cultural dominance or ethnocentrism, or honor instances of genocide or conquest? Do we equate pacifism with the absence of violence, or compassion with the absence of criticism or missionary activity?
Like most incidents in American history, the first Thanksgiving has taken on new meaning in the repetition that established it as an American tradition. It doesn’t specifically emphasize America or the dominant culture, if there is one, and doesn’t relate to a specific incident in which America or Americans won or otherwise reigned supreme. However, that it is contextualized in this alliance between Pilgrims and Wampanoag, certainly informs our meanings system that is activated upon Thanksgiving. Dysfunctional families force themselves to eat together in the name of togetherness, good neighbors open their tables to the weak and hungry, and speeches are made about cultural acceptance and working together to improve the world. Why this is so, I cannot say without further research, but I suspect that, over generations, this incident of peace between settlers and natives has been heightened to downplay the subsequent offenses by settlers against natives. Yet that the alliance was temporary and allowed the Pilgrims to easily take over native lands upon declining Wampanoag population, is neither compassionate nor violent, but certainly not an act of cultural acceptance.