Commentary | Thanks, but no thanks

The bitter underside of the seasonal holiday

Ah, Thanksgiving!

‘Tis the season for pumpkin pie, turkey, wild rice, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, crisp leaves, warm drinks, family, nostalgia, and yes, giving thanks. These are all things I love, true, but don’t they make you feel a bit like you’re stuck in a Norman Rockwell painting? Or outside of one, as the case may be.

I was in class once with a woman who argued vehemently that it was important to teach children the traditional story of American Thanksgiving because it teaches the value of sharing. You know the story I mean, right? The one where the pilgrims, fleeing a life of persecution in England, arrive in the ‘new world’ ill equipped to survive the winter. The local native people, wary at first, soon take pity on these poor souls and share food with them. Come summer, they teach the settlers how to plant crops, and in celebration of the first harvest and the colonists surviving a brutal year, natives and pilgrims come together for a feast – the first Thanksgiving.

The trouble with this story is that it’s not just truth watered down to make it more palatable to young minds – it’s an outright fabrication. The first years of contact between European settler colonists and the native peoples of Turtle Island (which came before the pilgrims ever arrived) were marked by the taking of Native slaves and the spread of smallpox epidemics brought by Europeans. Once the pilgrims arrived, you could add outright massacres to the list. Richard Greener writes in a 2010 article that the first settler Thanksgiving in North America was proclaimed by the governor of Massachusetts in 1637 “to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut, where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women, and children – all murdered.” The governor was not alone in rejoicing in the death of native people by the thousands. Mike Ely at the Kasama Project quotes a letter that colonist John Winthrop wrote home: “but for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.”

This revelry in the extermination of some and survival of others – the basis of that first Thanksgiving – is intrinsically linked to an understanding of Christianity that positions white Europeans as God’s chosen people. The doctrine that became known as Manifest Destiny, which understood the death of Native people as proof that God “gave” the land of the Americas to Europeans so that they could build it into a Christian nation, became the underlying belief structuring American policy for most of the country’s history. Although Canada’s evolution was shaped by other factors, strands of that reasoning can be found here as well.

It’s true that probably all agricultural societies have some sort of harvest feast. And I think it’s profoundly important to take the time to be grateful for what we have, particularly as we’re pushed to desire more and more in our materialist society. But let’s be clear about what we’re giving thanks for. Given its history, I’m not convinced a celebration of Canadian or American Thanksgiving can be separated from a celebration of Christian supremacy, genocide, and the doctrine of “might makes right.” At a time when the news is full of attacks on American mosques, when war on Iran seems imminent, when Israeli lobby groups sponsor ads claiming to defend the “civilized man” against the “savage,” it is clear that echoes of these beliefs are alive and well in our society. I’ll give thanks when those currents are well and truly gone, of course. But until then, I’ll be giving thanks for the strength to keep on fighting them. Just not on Thanksgiving Day.

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. They might run into Tweedledee and Tweedledum along the way. Contrariwise, they might not. Stick around to find out. Or email Mona at lookingglass@mcgilldaily.com.


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