Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but I wasn't always a fan. As anyone who's grown up in a dysfunctional family can tell you, holidays are often dreaded. However, as I grew up, I made holidays my own. My best friend and I started to go shopping on Christmas Eve as a tradition, my friends from church held a Friendsgiving gathering every year, and my university years featured some rad Halloween parties.
That being said, Thanksgiving is a special one. On one hand, contemporary tradition encourages us to spend time with our friends and family members, to cook and enjoy a meal together, and feel grateful for what we have.
Gratitude is essential to feeling satisfied in most areas of our life.
Even when things aren’t ideal or turn sour, practicing gratitude in human relationships, and extending gratitude towards ourselves and to whatever higher power you believe in, increases our emotional well-being and happiness.
On the other hand, Thanksgiving has a sinister side to its history as well, which is what makes it so goddamn fascinating. Just like feel-good American lore tells us, the first documented Thanksgivings celebrated by the British colonists in Massachusetts was indeed due to the help of nearby indigenous groups. But that's just the beginning of U.S. Thanksgiving history, and how the story ends can hopefully show us what mistakes to avoid in the future.
1491 by Charles Mann happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist writes in such a compelling way, I couldn't put it down at times, even though it's nonfiction.
Massachusetts, like other parts of the United States, was home to many different people groups prior to European arrival. However, due to previous contact with Europeans and their animals, these indigenous groups began dying from diseases brought over from the “Old World”. According to Charles Mann who wrote 1491 (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever written), the indigenous populations of the Americas had antibodies against
the parasites that invaded their own ecosystems, but they had no immunity against the bacterial infections that their white counterparts had unknowingly brought over. And thus began one aspect of the very brutal, yet wholly efficient, process of wiping out the original Americans.
One such group that was devastated by a disease outbreak was the Patuxet of Massachusetts. The last surviving Patuxet was called Tisquantum (or more commonly known as Squanto in American pop culture). Squanto has a soap-opera worthy story that includes being kidnapped by an English explorer who sold him to some monks in Spain, from which he learned English, travelled to England, and eventually made it back to Massachusetts only to find that all of his people had died from European diseases.
When he returned, his time overseas came in handy. He translated on behalf of the Plymouth settlers and the local Pokanokets in order to broker peace settlements between the two groups. He also taught the Pilgrims how to catch local aquatic life and grow corn as previously, all of their seeds and farming knowledge had failed them in this new land. Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in England anymore. But the Pilgrims had also received help elsewhere, as Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag, had already given them food during their first winter (one where half of the colony had died).
Thus, when harvest time came in 1421, the Pilgrims owed it to Squanto and the Wampanoag for making it through.
One of my favorite TV shows is National Geographic's Saints & Strangers. It shows both sides of the Thanksgiving story: that of the English settlers and the Native American groups they encountered. Native actors play the characters and a dialect coach taught them Western Abenaki for the show, which is the closest surviving tongue of what the Wampanoag would have spoken at the time.
Unfortunately, rather delicate peace settlements didn’t stay so delicate for long. Although the colonists celebrated subsequent Thanksgivings after that fateful shared one in 1421, a decade later the beloved holiday turned into a bloodbath. Plymouth’s leader Governor Bradford, previously one of Squanto’s friends, turned on another local indigenous group. This time, their eye was on the Pequot, who were accused of killing a settler. The pilgrims—not so pure anymore—burned down Pequot villages, killing hundreds of indigenous folks. And Governor Bradford, the one who survived that fateful first deadly winter, the one who had learned how to fish and farm from his companion Squanto, who had brokered peace with the Pokanokets, who had celebrated the fruit of their labor during the very first Thanksgiving where he broke bread with the indigenous, declared this year’s Thanksgiving to be a “bloody victory, thanking God the battle had been won.”
And so, albeit part of America’s Thanksgiving holds cozy origins, parts of it paints a picture of our troubled past: where our diseases killed millions and our swords killed millions of others. And so, this Thanksgiving I encourage you to think about those that are different from you, not in fear or judgement as we human beings are so prone to do, but with openness and understanding.
Amidst this global pandemic (oh, how history loves to repeat itself), be grateful for the things you have, and for the things others have given you.
And most importantly, if you are in the U.S., be grateful for the original Americans and their knowledge, without which, you might not be here in the first place.