“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.