The Brood: Every Thanksgiving, it seems, someone on the left reminds us that Thanksgiving’s origins are less than pure. There are arguments to abandon the holiday altogether. In this time of cultural revolution, Thanksgiving is a good case study when asking the question: If we want to drastically change the culture, what do we want to remain?
The critique that surfaces nearly every Thanksgiving is that Thanksgiving is, in history, spirit, and presentation, about the savage murder and conquest of Native Americans. It is white supremacist pageantry that celebrates displacing people of color from their own land. At a time when many Americans are re-thinking their ideas on race, religion, gender and sex — why should this particular holiday be safe from re-examination?
These critiques have a point. The history of American Thanksgiving is deeply tied into the history of European settlers coming to the New World. Their arrival incidentally lead to the world’s greatest plague, which killed ~90% of Natives in the Americas. This was a matter of biochemistry. Although Settlers later intuitively understood the implications of Native American’s initial lack of biological resistance, this pathogen-driven devastation was not any one’s fault. It was going to happen whenever either world “discovered” the other.
This Biblical-level plague opened up vast swathes of North America over the ensuing decades and centuries after Columbus. When the Pawtuxet tribesman Squanto returned from England after escaping slavery, he discovered that his village was wiped off the face of the earth not by English swords, but by disease. Resultant chaos in Native communities and recently de-populated lands meant that initial white settlers could more easily establish a foothold.
It also created conditions ripe for conflict and conquest. Europeans came for many reasons, including fleeing religious persecution, fleeing deadly civil wars, and searching for economic opportunities not possible in Europe, since most land available for farming was owned by fuedal lords. Natives suffered through plague, and the resulting social, political and military upheavals between and within tribes. When already-competing native tribes and white settlers had to navigate this complicated political landscape, it did not go well.
The Puritans, under Miles Standish, carried out a pre-emptive attack on the Massachusett, a rival to them and their Native allies, the Wampanoag. Unfortunately this friendship didn’t last long, either. When tensions boiled over after the settlers suspected the Wampanoag had murdered one of their own, they retaliated by killing several hundred Wampanoag men, women and children. William Bradford, governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
Fast forward a few hundred years and we know the result of this multi-generational conflict. Whites are the dominant ethnic group on the continent. How do we deal with this legacy, as a country? And also – what does it have to do with the sentiment of Thanksgiving? Which is, more or less, to be thankful for what you have, and for the love and support of friends and family.
It’s a hard question. It’s easy to see why so many people, and especially people of color, would want to do away with the holiday altogether, much like many would like to do away with Columbus Day. But I’d argue that Thanksgiving is far less banal in lived-substance than Columbus Day. It has some important human-level value to it. Throwing it into the trash can of history in order to redeem our society of its original sins may be throwing out the baby with the bath water.
I’m not alone in thinking this. There are Native writers who argue that the holiday has roots more native than European, and that the holiday, celebrated correctly, could be a path towards reconciliation. First-generation Americans who, despite feeling distance from the tradition, recognize the importance of the tradition in creating spaces to maintain family ties.
Some would argue that these arguments ring hollow compared to the violence of the history behind the holiday. But I argue that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That is to say, as Timothy Welbeck, a lawyer and professor in Temple University’s African-American Studies Department, puts it:
“What actually transpired led to European colonization of the Wampanoags and their ancestral land. My wife and I teach my children that painful truth,” he said. “What we now endeavor to do with our gatherings with extended family is reflect on the reasons we have to give thanks, while also acknowledging the troubled history associated with the holiday. We consider that a means in which to preserve the redeemable aspects of Thanksgiving.”
Every culture inherits sins from its forbearers. The task of current and future generations will be to weed out the evil while preserving the good. That is an inherently complicated process, and one that involves navigating a ton of moral grey areas, which is something I think people have a hard time doing right now, even when they are on the right side of history. Hot takes are all fine and good. But sometimes, we have to be mindful of the good, as well as the bad. How should we do that for Thanksgiving?
How should Thanksgiving change for the 21st century? What it is a better narrative? Or should we throw away the holiday altogether? Comment and share your thoughts!
Follow to get the next brooding question post right to your email, and comment below to suggest topics for future brooding.
Written and edited by Dylan Welch, co-host and creator of the Municipals podcast.