Friday, November 27, 2009

"The First Thanksgiving": Cracking Open the Brittle White Lies

[this photograph of Judy Dow with her artwork is from here]

Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”
by Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin
Revised 06/12/06

[I added more myths, and the link was updated on 12/26/2015.]

What is it about the story of “The First Thanksgiving” that makes it essential to be taught in virtually every grade from preschool through high school? What is it about the story that is so seductive? Why has it become an annual elementary school tradition to hold Thanksgiving pageants, with young children dressing up in paper-bag costumes and feather-duster headdresses and marching around the schoolyard? Why is it seen as necessary for fake “pilgrims” and fake “Indians” (portrayed by real children, many of whom are Indian) to sit down every year to a fake feast, acting out fake scenarios and reciting fake dialogue about friendship? And why do teachers all over the country continue (for the most part, unknowingly) to perpetuate this myth year after year after year?

Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? This belief would help contradict any feelings of guilt that could haunt us when we look at our role in more recent history in dealing with other indigenous peoples in other countries. If we dare to give up the “myth” we may have to take responsibility for our actions both concerning indigenous peoples of this land as well as those brought to this land in violation of everything that makes us human. The realization of these truths untold might crumble the foundation of what many believe is a true democracy. As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.

We offer these myths and facts to assist students, parents and teachers in thinking critically about this holiday, and deconstructing what we have been taught about the history of this continent and the world. (Note: We have based our “fact” sections in large part on the research, both published and unpublished, that Abenaki scholar Margaret M. Bruchac developed in collaboration with the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation. We thank Marge for her generosity. We thank Doris Seale and Lakota Harden for their support.)

Myth #1: “The First Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
“Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday. Its traditions began in the New World with a feast shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans….The Pilgrims decided to have a three-day celebration feast to give thanks for a good harvest. Thus began the first Thanksgiving.”
Judith Stamper, Thanksgiving Fun Activity Book
“In New England the first traditional Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Plymouth colonists.”
Kathy Ross, Crafts for Thanksgiving
"During the fall of 1621, he declared that there would be a feast to celebrate their first bountiful harvest…. Today, we think of that wonderful harvest feast…as the first American Thanksgiving. (Although for them Native Americans, it was actually their fifth thanksgiving feast of the year!)”
Deborah Fink, It's a Family Thanksgiving!
“The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the Pilgrims’ very first harvest….[The cornucopia reminds] us of the first Thanksgiving when Pilgrims gave thanks for their first rich harvest in the New World.”
Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving, A Book of Drawing Fun
“The feast at Plymouth in 1621 is often called The First Thanksgiving.”
Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving

“The pilgrims wanted to give thanks for all the good food. That was the first Thanksgiving."
Karen Gray Ruelle, The Thanksgiving Beast Feast

No one knows when the “first” thanksgiving occurred. People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. Indigenous nations all over the world have celebrations of the harvest that come from very old traditions; for Native peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but every day, for all the gifts of life. To refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as “The First Thanksgiving” disappears Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children.

For other eurocentric, white supremacist myths, please see below. For the corrections to those distortions and lies, please visit this website: 

Myth #2: The people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims.
Myth #3: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.
Myth #4: When the "Pilgrims" landed, they first stepped foot on "Plymouth Rock."
Myth #5: The Pilgrims found corn.
Myth #6: Samoset appeared out of nowhere, and along with Squanto became friends with the Pilgrims. Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and joined them at "The First Thanksgiving."
Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.
Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.
Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.

The Introduction by Mitchel Cohen, in 2004, to his 2003 piece on U.S. Thanksgiving

[image is from here]
[Source for what follows: here]
November 25, 2004

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Why I Hate Thanksgiving (2004 Version)

On Thanksgiving morning 2003, George W. Bush showed up in Iraq before sunrise for a photo-op, wearing an Army workout jacket and surrounded by soldiers. He cradled a platter with what appeared to be a golden-brown turkey. Washington Post reporter Mike Allen wrote that "the bird looks perfect, with bunches of grapes and other trimmings completing a Norman Rockwell image that evokes bounty and security in one of the most dangerous parts of the world."

As the world was soon to learn (but quickly forgot), the turkey platter was a phony, a decoration, that Bush posed with for the cameras. Bush shook a few hands, said a few "God Bless Americas," and scurried back to his plane as quickly as he had arrived.

Thus, in one fell swoop, the new Conquistador had tied to history's bloody bough the 511-year-old conquest of the "New World" ­ whose legions smote the indigenous population in the name of Christ ­ with last year's bombardment and invasion of Iraq and the torture-detentions of prisoners of war at U.S. military bases.

Since last Thanksgiving George Bush'sAmerica has filled the Iraqi landscape with depleted uranium armaments that have poisoned the agriculture and water supply for thousands of years to come.

As I write, U.S. troops are blasting their way through the town of Fallujah, and hundreds of dead civilians lie in the streets everywhere. The military calls them "corpses" and "collateral damage" ­ and so too do the media. U.S. and British journalists have fled the carnage and return only as "embeds" ­ reporters planted in the safety of large army squandrons ­ embellishing slightly on military press releases and faxing their reports to their editors as "eyewitness news". It is only through the photos taken by Arab journalists and independent media that we learn of the actual horror, of the children's bodies lying in the street alongside the tanks as American soldiers satisfactorily survey the scene.

The NY Post ran a picture of one of these soldiers and captioned him the "Marlboro Man," the generic embodiment of what it means for them to be a "man," rugged, oil-smeared face dragging on a U.S. cigarette. It's not the individual grunt'sfault that the media needs to invent its heroes in such caricatures, but forgive me if I look elsewhere ­ perhaps to the guerrillas, to the hundreds of military resisters, to the immigrants rounded up for simply existing, to lawyers like Lynne Stewart who are fighting against the USA Patriot Act and the decimation of the Bill of Rights ­ for reminding of what it means to be human in an era of robots.

Similarly, in Palestine where Israeli occupiers are building a huge wall ­ basically, a concentration camp ­ around and through Palestine, paid for by U.S. tax dollars.

The mindset that created the first Thanksgiving in the 17th century on the corpses of murdered Pequot Indians runs free today in the 21st century over the corpses of murdered Iraqis, Afghanis, and Palestinians.

* * *
In November 2003, as George Bush's plane was landing in the pre-dawn hours for his faux-dinner in Iraq, I wrote "Why I Hate Thanksgiving," and it ended up being published all over the place under various titles, such as Counterpunch's"Genocide? Pass the Turkey." Much has transpired since then. But, despite enormous antiwar protests that shook the world, the true history of what Thanksgiving represents, as I discussed in my article, has re-emerged without apology from the Shopping Malls of suburbia in the form of the Night of the Living Dead. The elections were stolen, and ignorant armies are clashing everywhere by night.

I received hundreds of letters responding to that essay; In future printings of this booklet I will append readers, comments, so please send them to me. In this printing I've supplemented some historical views and made some other adjustments.

One additional consideration has to do with our fetishization of "Thanksgiving food," why we eat it, where it comes from. While I fondly remember the results of Aunt Dora'ssecret recipe for her delicious turkey stuffing that I enjoyed so much as a kid, I am revolted by the annual ritual slaughter of tens of millions of turkeys, which many of us feast on while watching equally sanitized images of blown-up Iraqi and Afghan children. William Kunstler, bless his soul ­ whirling as he is in his grave furiously trying to generate the energy needed to power all the indymedia websites worldwide ­ towards the end of his life began to speak of the link between the mass slaughter of animals, capital punishment and the history of colonization ... and, what we,d need to do to begin to change things:

"Marjorie Spiegel, a neighbor of mine in Greenwich Village, has written a most compelling book ­ The Dreaded Comparison ­ in which she details the devastating similarities between animal and human slavery," Kunstler argues. He continues:

"Alice Walker, in her most eloquent foreword, states that The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men., ...

"We owe it to ourselves and the animal world as well to create, not merely a body of rules and regulations to govern our conduct but a level of sensibility that makes us care, deeply and constructively, about the entire planet and all of its varied inhabitants. If we can accomplish this, then, perhaps, in some far-off day, those who follow us down the track of the generations will be able to dwell in relative harmony with all the creatures of the earth, human and nonhuman."

The ritual slaughter of turkeys; the fact that each American'saverage Thanksgiving dinner is 2000 calories, and that we live in a country with 5% of the world'speople consuming 27% of the world'snatural resources, while making 50% of its garbage ­ these present us with strong arguments against factory farming, with its subjugation of animals (and plants) to severe abuse, genetic engineering, pesticides, and a sewer of antibiotics, leading to conditions that not only torture the animals but enter the U.S. diet and severely impact on human health.

We are getting sicker as a nation physically, as well as mentally. The two are related.

We know that we need to speak truth to power, and that justice will prevail eventually; the questions, though, are "How long is eventually?" "How many people must be tortured and killed in the meantime?" And, "How can we stop it? What do we need to do, NOW?"

After reading my essay, one writer wrote: "Good Lord, I,m so depressed! I hope he doesn't write Why I Hate Christmas,! His family must really look forward to his arrival on Thanksgiving Day. For my sanity's sake I think I,ll cling to the revisionist version!"

Another writer asked me: "I've been reading your posts for years and I wonder, is there anything you celebrate and take joy in? We never hear about those things, but only about what you find wrong with the world. What do you find right?"

I can answer in one word: "Resistance." Celebrate Resistance. That is what I take joy in, Resistance in its political, artistic, social, and sexual forms.

* * *
This Thanksgiving Day, I will get together with MY family ­ those of you who believe in resistance ­ and FAST in front of U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer's house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to protest his support for the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. financing of Israel's occupation of Palestine, and the detention and torture of immigrants and prisoners of war by the U.S. government.

I will fast outside Sen. Schumer's in order to meditate upon the historical threads that bind U.S. policy today to its colonial genocide of the Native people of Turtle Island.

I will fast for Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and all political prisoners in the United States.

I will fast against the USA Patriot Act, repression of immigrants, and the decimation of the Bill of rights.

I will fast against global ecological devastation.

I will fast to better contemplate what new forms the resistance will take.

The effort in finding ways to turn despair into resistance is a happy one. CREATE the alternative. BE the alternative. Don't let the system determine for us how to experience its rituals and warfare, or the approved ways to combat its terror. Be Creative. Resistance keeps you young, forever!

Mitchel Cohen
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn
November 25, 2004