The Truth About Thanksgiving

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie  — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

John F. Kennedy

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday in the United States, where loved ones gather for a festive meal in gratitude for their bounty. Thought to have begun in 1621, it is tradition now and is passed down from generation to generation. We all learnt about the Thanksgiving story as children. We were told how the Pilgrims and Indians sat down together to enjoy an epic feast as friends and a community. This story is more fairytale than fact however and it is something we must be cognizant of. Native Americans weren’t honored guests at this meal and were probably not even invited. A myth developed which downplayed the bloody conflicts and the injustices that occurred between the settlers and Native Americans which continued over the centuries which followed.

The myth took hold that a group of friendly Indians welcomed the Pilgrims to America. This unidentified group of Indians (who were actually Wampanoag Indians) taught the Pilgrims how to survive in this new land. Then the Indians gave America to the Pilgrim settlers so they could create a nation based on liberty, freedom, and Christianity. In other words, it was about the Native people conceding to colonialism. What this myth allowed for was essentially a whitewashing of history and allowed people to believe was that colonialism was bloodless and victimless, that it had nothing to do with the Indian Wars or slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without confronting its deep darkness.

Why is it so important for us to understand what really happened? Can we not just leave the past in the past and not tarnish a holiday? What we don’t realize is this fairytale story which we have been told perpetuates a myth that still harms Native Americans today. It marginalized the truth of what really happened in North America. In the words of Raymond Foxworth, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, “we need to understand and acknowledge and share our true history”. He went on to say that “only by doing so can we start to move toward healing and reconciliation between Native people and European colonizers.” Are you and I to blame for what happened? No. However, as is every leader’s duty to apologize on behalf of a nation for the wrongs of the past, it is our duty to listen, take stock and seek to atone for what was done to these communities (Andersen, 2021).

Most of the Thanksgiving myths we have grown up with are not true, as David Silverman shares in his book “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving”.  The first Thanksgiving which took place in 1621 was not a ‘Thanksgiving’ which was filled with gratitude and contemplation. It was a party including drinking, militia drills and target practice (The New Yorker, Philip Deloria, 2019). Nor did the Wampanoag Indians receive a warm welcome at this ‘Thanksgiving’ from the Pilgrim settlers. They came, not to partake in festive activities, but to help the Pilgrims hearing gun fire and assuming the Pilgrims were under attack.

Years went by with sporadic occasions celebrating Thanksgiving on and off and most were more solemn with a focus on fasting and prayer. Some Thanksgivings followed bloody victories over Native American people. The Thanksgiving which we know and celebrate today only came about two centuries later when, on October 3rd, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be a national holiday. It was then that the myth of the Native American – Pilgrim feast took hold, and the Pilgrims of New England were seen to be the perfect image of what this nation would be founded on with the character of Americans centered on family, hard work, individualism, freedom, and faith (The New Yorker, Deloria, 2019).

So how does one confront a myth such as that of Thanksgiving? According to Silverman it begins by deconstructing the process through which it was made. In the case of Thanksgiving, this can focus on exposing the self-serving aspects of the story. In deconstructing myths Silverman cautions about the temptation to offer a counter-myth to suit current times but to tell a more honest story of what took place, albeit not a pretty picture. Many places around the world have held onto myths. The content may be different, but the form is the same. These myths when not questioned can lead to violence, mass murder, genocide, and even civil war. We have seen that myths have led to the Nazi holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Some countries have been able to move beyond their myths by recognizing them, and to varying degrees, have been able to engage in emotional healing or reconciliation processes to move past them and deal with the reality of what had gone before. Holding onto myths or beliefs to the detriment of any progress is something that keeps us stuck in the past. Those too wedded to beliefs, myths, and the philosophies of the past or allegiances to political parties are blinded and unable to see the reality of what is going on in front of their very eyes. This is the real danger of holding on to myths. People remain in denial of reality and, as a result, we in the United States for example are in denial of the richness of our past and our diversity in this country.

Myth breaking is hard to do. It requires the questioning of our ‘stories’ that uphold the traditional social order, making the heroes less than heroes and acknowledging the complexities of what it means to be human. This challenge is difficult to face. People will feel uncomfortable but if deep healing is to take place this is the path we must take. Myths should not be held sacred, our values should be however. This Thanksgiving, let us celebrate with family, friends, and loved ones but let us do so by acknowledging the hurt of the past and where it all began. It is our choice now and our responsibility to atone for what was done to our native people. It will be hard but let us at least try.

Are Americans Ready for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the country heal from the wounds of apartheid. Rwanda had a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to help reconstruct Rwandan society and identity following a brutal chapter in its history. If we look even closer to home, Canada established a truth and reconciliation commission to address what occurred involving the Indian Residential School system. This was established to guide a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians more generally. Today, in the United States there have been calls for some form of a reconciliation process over issues such as slavery, racial justice and more recently the attack on the capitol which took place on January 6th, 2021. Are Americans ready to face the truth of the past? Are people ready to embrace such a process?

Truth commissions are not new and all that have formed are unique to the situation they have been established to address. Initially, there needs to be a consensus that a truth commission is required and then a consensus on what the issues are that need to be addressed. This initial requirement is often where the best laid plans fall apart. The problem in the United States is that there is no consensus, even for the need of a truth commission, let alone what the issues are that need to be addressed. We do not know what reconciliation would look like in a country facing so many challenges, especially since the country is so polarized.

Healing is necessary in this country. It couldn’t be more apparent after what we witnessed on January 6th, 2021. Recent years have seen growing polarization across the United States, people seeing those with different viewpoints as “the other” and lesser than those with whom they agree. Even if people have a desire to come back together, how do we begin the conversation about what really divides us? It is complicated. There has been so much fear and distrust on both sides of the divide. Each party is afraid that the other will gain more power and sees the other side as an existential threat coming. This is not a healthy democracy. We need to lessen this fear and get to the truth, everyone’s truth, and understand what really happened on January 6th, 2021, and why it happened.

Danielle Allen wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on January 21st, 2021, and spoke about “The four kinds of truth America needs to pursue for reconciliation”. Allen, who is a candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, outlined the different stages of a reconciliation process in the US. It begins with forensic truth, getting the facts and holding people accountable for their actions. This is what takes place in the courts and involves eyewitness accounts of what has happened while developing an historical record of what took place. To move forward we must first determine the full facts of what happened and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

Next comes the personal ‘truths’ where people share their stories, their personal truth. The United States began this process when the Capitol Police officers were testifying in front of Congress, explaining what they encountered and were subjected to. The officers outlined the cruelty and brutality of the day, the violence they experienced and the abuse they endured.  It is important we all carefully listen to these stories without judgment or prejudice if we want to ever make sense of what happened that day. We must bring these personal truths to the table to truly understand. The personal truths that were on display on January 6th demonstrated how far apart people’s beliefs really were. People on the left saw Confederate flags and a white supremacist insurrection. People on the right saw participants as embodying the spirit of 1776 in a morally legitimate uprising. (Danielle Allen, The Washington Post, January 21, 2021.) These chants of 1776 go back to the tea party movement in 2009.

There clearly has been discontent within the United States, within communities, and even within families. Yes, there have been extremists in charge and conspiracy theorists have been given license to perpetuate their mistruths in the mainstream but there has also been some ‘truth’ which has affected conservative ways of life. We must understand the different societal world views, why they developed the way they did, the validity of these world views and the needs that are represented by these world views. Why else do so many people feel that they have lost control over their lives? The point is that understanding where people are coming from gives us an opening to pursue a shared social truth. We need to listen and understand to begin to discuss and move forward. We need to understand what caused people to align with certain worldviews. We need to hear different perspectives which are seeded by these ‘truths’. It helps us begin to sort through all the noise so a social truth can be constructed which can empower people and embrace our diversity.

Allen, in her opinion piece, also spoke of restorative truth. What kind of policies and institutions do we want to have in place that support who we want to be as a people? Some in our communities have felt disenfranchised. We need to have economic policies which reflect the needs of every American, to empower them, and this includes having the ability to access good jobs and work flexibility which can restore dignity to one’s life.

What Allen touches on, and what my work focuses on is a political forgiveness process. This is a process which involves people coming together in safe places, telling their stories knowing that people are really listening. It is about reweaving the fabric of our society in such a way that brings a community back together, where everyone is empowered and embraced. The process restores dignity by seeking structural changes to take place in policies and institutions that can allow society to move forward, as one people and one community.

This is not an easy process. It is time consuming, requires real commitment and leadership and an honest desire to move forward. If we want to do the deep healing which is necessary to set the stage for a reconciliation process to take hold then this is the task at hand. We must approach it with an open mind and a genuine will to make things better. The bottom line is that it is important all Americans need to feel empowered and included in our multicultural society. Yes, this is difficult but we can do it. We need to have a strong desire and will but if we truly want to have a great country this is the path we need to take. This is the path towards healing and reconciliation. This is the path to repair the divide, to bring communities and families back together. We must act now as we have no time to waste.