It has now been 401 years since the Pilgrims of Plymouth shared a harvest meal with the Wampanoag people. That apparently convivial supper has been the centerpiece of America’s most reverent national holiday ever since 1863 when Pres. Abraham Lincoln declared “the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving.”
However, it is no longer so easy to keep a simple focus on persecuted English emigrants surviving a harsh trans-Atlantic journey and a deadly winter to be met by the generosity of their new neighbors. The historical reckoning this country is currently undergoing makes it hard for many people to contemplate that moment without facing up to what came after: a rolling wave of war, displacement and cultural genocide that spread across the continent.
Thanksgiving raises the same questions that have been raised in debates about Columbus, Confederate statues and slave-owning Founding Fathers. Should we celebrate their heroics or condemn their sins? Is “presentism” — judging people in the past by the standards of the present day — an unfair and misleading measure? Is the history we have been taught a unifying narrative that is necessary to sustain national identity, or is it only a celebration of European-derived hegemony that has left out everyone else?
With this debate in mind, I am reminded of Bobbie Conner, a native woman whom I interviewed in 2005 for a series of stories about the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Even more grandiose than the First Thanksgiving scenario, the tale of Lewis and Clark is an epic story of heroic white men on a journey of discovery aided by friendly indigenous people. Conner, who was then the director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton, Oregon, described the expedition as “the first group of emissaries from a young, ambitious country sent by a young ambitious president.”
In a long conversation, Conner acknowledged that the massive immigration from Europe was inevitable and unstoppable. “That others would come was certain,” she said. “That they would be so unjust and cavalier was not.”
That is the crux of the dilemma as we seek to understand and teach our history. Like human migrations throughout the world and through the centuries, the transplantation to North America of technologically advanced Europeans was never going to be turned back by the soon-to-be outnumbered people who had lived on the continent for millennia. Could it have happened with more fairness and compassion? In a perfect world, yes, and maybe there was a fleeting moment in that “First Thanksgiving” where it seemed possible. Human beings, however, are seldom angels. Our history is what it is; heroes and villains and victims and, sometimes, people who are all three at once. Mostly, it is the story of common people, like the Pilgrims, struggling to survive and build a better life for their families with no conception of the tragic forces of history they may be setting in motion, or the Wampanoags who could not imagine how they would soon be engulfed.
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