Americans, like the inhabitants of just about every country – especially the ones that find themselves having come out on top in a number of historical conflicts – have a penchant for rewriting history in a light that’s flattering to themselves.
Wars tend to get sanitized of their brutality, disasters and horrific mistakes.
Crass greed, materialism and acquisitiveness get recast as drive, ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit.
Social progress for women, racial and ethnic minorities and others long forced to endure discrimination is presented as more a matter of natural human progress and the beneficent acts of enlightened leaders than something that had to be wrenched from the hands of a selfish and narrow-minded ruling class.
Meanwhile, successful politicians – however real their human foibles and imperfect their works – are regularly lionized along with many of their creations.
Take, for instance, America’s much-beloved Thanksgiving holiday. First celebrated at the direction of President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, it’s hard to think of a creation of the U.S. government that enjoys greater national popularity or a more favorable mythology.
As historian Philip Deloria explained, however, in a powerful new article/book review in the New Yorker magazine (“The invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday.”), there was a lot more to the original Thanksgiving get-together that took place between New England Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians 398 years ago than most Americans are aware of.
Most of us learned in elementary school that the event marked a warm and solemn celebration in which kind-hearted Native people broke bread with and, effectively, welcomed good, God-fearing European immigrants to the New World.
The hard truth of the matter, however, is – as even a moment’s reflection on both human nature and what was really going on at that point in history would reveal – vastly more complex and not nearly as inspiring.
As Deloria and the authors he cites (David Silverman, Lisa Blee, Jean O’Brien, Lisa Brooks) explain, the first Thanksgiving was less a warm and fuzzy moment of prayer and shared blessings than it was an accidental and awkward three-day meeting driven by a brief mutual defense pact between two half-starving and disease-decimated groups that had been consummated in the midst of a series of complex wars – both between European immigrants and Native people and amongst various Native tribes.
What’s more, it led to anything but a lasting peace between the groups. In fact, a few decades later, the Pilgrims held another “Thanksgiving” to celebrate a bloody and victorious battle with the same Native group – an event they commemorated by mounting the severed head of the son of one of the Native ambassadors at the original “Thanksgiving” on a spike above their town.
And, of course, that era of relentless conflict continued for centuries until European Americans, at long last, either wiped out or subdued Native people and confiscated most of their lands.
As Prof. Deloria writes:
The Thanksgiving story buries the major cause of [what was referred to as] King Philip’s War—the relentless seizure of Indian land. It also covers up the consequence. The war split Wampanoags, as well as every other Native group, and ended with indigenous resistance broken, and the colonists giving thanks. Like most Colonial wars, this one was a giant slave expedition, marked by the seizure and sale of Indian people.”
In other words, it’s not inaccurate to say that, despite the modern mythology that surrounds it, the original events that led up to and followed the first Thanksgiving were not really about human brotherhood and the common good. Rather, they were chiefly (and sadly) about the values that continue to dominate the modern America’s economy and so much of its political discourse in the 21st Century: the values of greed, power and wealth accumulation – what, in many ways, are the core principles of Trumpism.
None of this sobering history lesson is meant to denigrate the modern concept of Thanksgiving as it has come to be practiced in many corners of the country and, indeed, the globe. The idea of families of all shapes, sizes, colors and belief systems coming together to give thanks for their lives, those of their loved ones and the bounty that the Earth provides is always a good one.
It is, however, worth pointing out and remembering the bitter irony that when President Trump and his allies like the leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly turn away suffering immigrants, slash food assistance to the poor and deny them access to healthcare, despoil the environment and seize wealth from the middle class and the poor for themselves and their friends, they are, in many ways, continuing a dark American tradition that dates back to the time of the first Thanksgiving.
Maybe if we understood this history a little better, we might do a better job of overcoming it today and moving beyond it in the future.