Thanksgiving . . . and Who to Thank

by William Loren Katz on November 15, 2010

Thanksgiving remains the most treasured holiday in the United States, honored by Presidents since the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln initiated the Holiday to stir northern patriotism.

Thanksgiving has often served political ends. In 2003 President George Bush flew to Bagdad, Iraq to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with U.S. troops. He brought a host of media photographers to capture him carrying a glazed turkey to the troops. He flew home in three hours, and soon after TV brought his act of courage and generosity to Americans enjoying their Thanksgiving. But the turkey he carried to the soldiers in Bagdad was never eaten. It was cardboard, a stage prop…Thanksgiving as a photo-op.

2003 had a lot in common with the first Thanksgiving Day. In 1620 149 English Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower landed at Plymouth and survived their first New England winter because Wampanoug people brought them corn, meat and other gifts. Then in 1621 Governor William Bradford of Plymouth proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving – but not for the Wampanoug saviors but his Pilgrims. He claimed his Christian settlers had staved off hunger through their courage, resourcefulness, and devotion to God. To this day most politicians, ministers and educators would have us see the First Thanksgiving as the Governor did.

Bradford’s fable is an early example of “Eurothink”—another example is “Columbus discovered America”—an arrogant lie that casts European conquest as progress. European settlers saw Native Americans—who were neither Christian nor white—as undeserving. The heroic European scenario of school texts rarely thanks other people.

Bradford claims Native Americans were invited to the dinner. Really? Since Pilgrims classified their dark, “infidel” neighbors as inferiors, if invited at all, they would be asked to provide and serve and not share the food.

The English pushed westward after 1621using military power. In 1637 Governor Bradford, without provocation, dispatched his militia against their Pequot neighbors. As devout Christians locked in mortal combat with heathens, Pilgrim soldiers assaulted a village of sleeping men, women and children. Bradford rejoiced in this proud Christian moment: “It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same and horrible was the stink and stench thereof. But the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice and they [the militiamen] gave praise thereof to God.”

Years later Pilgrim Reverend Increase Mather asked his congregation to give thanks to God “that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to hell.”

School texts still honor Bradford. The 1993 edition of the authoritative Columbia Encyclopedia [P. 351] states of Bradford, “He maintained friendly relations with the Native Americans.” The scholarly Dictionary of American History [P. 77] said, “He was a firm, determined man and an excellent leader; kept relations with the Indians on friendly terms; tolerant toward newcomers and new religions…”

The Mayflower, renamed the Meijbloom (Dutch for Mayflower), continued to make history. It became one of the first ships to carry enslaved Africans to the Americas.

Our Thanksgiving Day celebrates not justice or equality but aggression and enslavement. It affirms the kind of racial beliefs that left tens of millions of Native Americans dead and their cultures destroyed.

Americans count themselves among the earliest to fight for freedom and independence. On Thanksgiving they could honor the first freedom-fighters of the Americas. A century before the Pilgrims landed thousands of enslaved Africans and Native Americans had fled their chains, and united to battle Spanish, Portuguese and other foreign invaders and enslavers. They united in the Republic of Palmares before the Mayflower landed, repeatedly defeated Dutch and Portuguese invading armies, and lasted for a hundred years. These heroic people kept no written record but a century later some of their ideas about freedom and equality were written into a 1776 parchment Americans celebrate each July 4th.

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