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Is America’s Thanksgiving holiday ‘under siege’?

Americans are set to spend $1billion dollars on this year's Thanksgiving, but the celebration is not without its problems and there are those who want it replaced by a day of atonement.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama "pardons" Abe, a 42-pound male turkey in the Rose Garden at the White House in 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

In November 1621 the Mayflower settlers decided to hold a celebration. Half of them had survived the first winter since their landing on Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, there had been a birth, there had even been a marriage. Above all, they had gathered in their first harvest.

William Bradford, governor and chronicler of life in Plymouth, Massachusetts, wrote: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.”

And rejoice they did. Chief Massasoit, the “greatest king” of the Wampanoag tribe, on whose lands the pilgrims had built their homes, turned up with 90 men and “for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor”.

The way it is told – and the only accounts we have of the early days of the Plymouth settlement are written by the English – this was a moment of pleasure, goodwill and perfect amity and that perception remained unchallenged until the 1960s when protest movements broke out across the USA against the Vietnam War, racism and injustice, and many traditions which had been sacrosanct were questioned.

Today, the “special manner” of rejoicing is known as Thanksgiving, that quintessential North American gathering exemplified by the illustrator Norman Rockwell in his 1943 painting Freedom From Want which portrayed a family – white and middle-class – seated around a well-stocked table tucking into turkey and cranberry sauce. From the UK perspective, nothing could be more American or more benign but nothing could be more antithetical to 4,500-plus descendants of the tribe who live in the area today.

They argue that they saved the settlers from starvation by teaching them how to grow crops, hunt and fish. They assert, vehemently, that the arrival of the Mayflower signalled the beginning of deprivation and exploitation of their people and eventually their destruction. They want their side of the Mayflower story told.

Their frustration, and indeed anger, at the way their role is portrayed – they would say marginalised – has reached something of a crescendo as celebrations were held of the 400th anniversary of the landing last November and this year’s 400th Thanksgiving.

Many commentators sympathise with their anger.

Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want, which summed up Thanksgiving… until recently. Photo: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

In November 2019, historian Simon Sharma described the day as America’s favourite jamboree and wrote in the Financial Times that it had become a “ritual template for a virtuous America (not withstanding the campaign – by the settlers – well under way, of ethnically cleansing its native inhabitants)”.

Another US magazine described how the Wampanoag had joined the feast and that a “good time was had by all, before things quietly took their natural course which was to end in land grab and destruction”.

An extreme view was expressed by a Texas University professor who declared that Thanksgiving Day and its “self-indulgent family feasting” should be replaced by a National Day of Atonement.

To discover why so many consider Thanksgiving has been appropriated as the white man’s party, we need to join the celebrations for the 350th anniversary in 1971 when a prominent Wampanoag named Frank James was invited to speak at a state dinner.

The organisers checked his speech, only to discover it was a condemnation of the settlers for desecrating the peoples’ graves, stealing food and decimating the population with disease.

They decreed it “inflammatory” and the invitation was withdrawn. Undeterred, James gave the speech standing by the statue of chief Massasoit in Plymouth determined to focus attention on the “repression” of his ancestors in a “dignified and responsible manner”.

Not all his followers were that dignified. A breakaway group stormed on board the replica Mayflower, ripped down the English flags and threw a replica cannon into the harbour before bursting into the official Thanksgiving dinner, overturning the tables of food and carrying off the turkeys.

In ensuing years, the day was marked with protest marches and clashes with the police.

After James’s speech it was resolved that instead of Thanksgiving they would hold a National Day of Mourning which continues to this day. So, on November 25 a parade of floats under the auspices of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants will wind its way through Plymouth with its participants wearing the obligatory pilgrim attire while members of the Wampanoag will make an alternative protest, mourning their ancestors and “the genocide of our peoples and the theft of our lands”.

Genocide? Theft? What really happened 400 years ago? Why has the day become weaponised with such rhetorical fervour?

Linda Coombs, Wampanoag museum educator, told Time magazine: “When the colonists came over in the 17th century, they had to get rid of us in one form or another whether it was converting us, moving us, annihilating us, or shipping us out of the country into slavery, and I wish people knew that because…. that’s what it took for America to be what it is today and for people to sit down to their Thanksgiving dinner.”

It’s worth balancing that claim by recalling that the English and Wampanoag signed a peace treaty in March 1621, which lasted more than 50 years, and to accuse them of being a colonising force hellbent on subjugation is to ignore the fact that many of the settlers were refugees fleeing English persecution rather than aggressive interlopers.

The United American Indian Involvement group, which provides human and health services for American Indians, hosts its annual Thanksgiving meal in Los Angeles in 2015. Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Bradford had lamented that they were short of arms before the voyage began and, anyway, almost half of them were women and children – so not much of an invading army.

There is no evidence of land grabs – Governor Bradford bought a township for £16/9s (around £2,000 today) while another settler paid six coats, half a dozen pairs of small breeches, 10 hoes and 10 hatchets and two brass kettles.
There are no accounts of them shifting anyone into slavery.

However, what is irrefutable is that many years after the landing, the tribes were driven from their lands and virtually wiped out by ever-expanding communities led by the Puritan settlers in Boston.

As for the three-day jamboree, the words Thanksgiving Day are never used in the early account and neither cranberry or turkey, the familiar staple of the US Thanksgiving, were listed on the menu which is ironic given that according to the most recent estimates Americans will spend something like $1.05billion on the big day. There was, however, wine, “very sweet and strong”.

The thought of having a day as a national event did not take hold until a campaign by the editor of a woman’s magazine was launched in 1827.

Abraham Lincoln seized on the idea when the country was mired in civil war in 1863 and entreated all Americans to ask God to “heal the wounds of the nation”, and scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November.

Hardly surprisingly, many descendants of the Wampanoag do not feel included among “all Americans” and the mood today has been fuelled by the divisive chaos of US politics, the passion engendered by the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened by the fact that Native populations have been 3.5 times more likely to contract Covid-19 than white people.

James Baker, an authority on all matters Mayflower, says: “The Thanksgiving holiday, like much of the US commemorative and celebratory culture, is under siege today. New times… interpretations.”

He suggests three approaches have been taken to understanding the story.

One is the traditional portrayal of convivial pilgrims and Wampanoag enjoying an outdoor autumnal dinner and living happily ever after thanks to the peace treaty. The other is the Native Peoples’ view that celebrating the harvest is whitewashing the more significant reality of subsequent colonial oppression with many trying to establish a new myth in place of the original.

“The third approach is a gratuitous exaggeration of the second, in which invective and falsehood are used to portray the Plymouth colonists as incorrigible and vicious scoundrels. This is the preferred ‘virtuous’ approach by Thanksgiving critics who are neither Mayflower descendants nor the Wampanoag (who have a more nuanced and not unfavourable view of the holiday if not its popular myths),” he said.

In his book, Under Siege, he writes: “For the Native Americans, the fact that their only appearance in the annual round of remembrance that our American holiday cycle provides should be as bit players in a saccharine tale of an autumn dinner party is a bitter irony.

“The centuries of violence and neglect that their culture suffered before and after 1621 are trivialised and ignored in the glow of this single mythological moment.”

As a result, US schools and institutions have been encouraged to downplay “the old civic pieties” about the pilgrims and to accentuate the Native People’s perspective. Furthermore, most of the publicity surrounding the Mayflower anniversary in this country concentrated on the Wampanoag.

Perhaps the way to end the weaponising of Thanksgiving as a symbol of division and anger is to follow Mr Baker’s advice and embrace the “poignant and inspiring” spirit of Camelot when there “once was a time when with the best intentions, two very different cultures came together in that autumn celebration”.

He added: “We can and should acknowledge that it was a brief, fleeting, doomed event that has been greatly disserved by advocates and detractors alike, and cherish it as an image of hope and trust in the future.”

  • Voices of the Mayflower, The Saints, Strangers and Sly Knaves Who Changed the World, by Richard Holledge, is out now.

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