In search of a Thanksgiving myth

Opinion: Editorials

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By Tom Holmes

When I was a boy — I know, I know, that's how so many stories from septuagenarians begin, but I'm trying to make a point that will bring what we do on Thursday up to date.

When I was a boy, the reason for the season of Thanksgiving was told in a myth or story about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to farm in this new world, the Pilgrims putting on a big feast after a bountiful harvest in 1621, and the little colony of 53 people from England inviting their native neighbors to join them.

When anthropologists use the term "myth," they don't mean a story that's fake news. Rather, they mean a story that people tell to explain who they are and why they do what they do.

We learned what I will call the Pilgrim-Squanto Myth (PSM) in grade school to promote the idea that we are a nation of immigrants and that we should all get along with and help each other. I loved PSM then and still do now. For me, it's sort of like Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. To switch metaphors, it paints a picture of how I want life to be.

In fact, I went through a stage in grade school when I wanted to become an Indian. My parents drove me up to the town of Kahena in the Menominee Nation northwest of Green Bay for one of my birthdays, where I met some real Indians, and my parents bought me a 12-inch-high teepee made out of birch bark. Squanto was a role model for me.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, 242 years after Anglo-Saxons and Native Americans enjoyed an hour or two of harmony. He did it partly because he wanted to begin healing the wounds of war even before the conflict had ended.

Here's the problem: Dr. King referred to what he said — "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" — as a dream.

The problem with PSM these days is that historical facts get in the way of that narrative working as a compelling, unifying myth, and that will always be the case when myths are based on historical individuals or events .

For white nationalists, it portrays white people as the immigrants and completely dependent on Indians for their survival. So they can't buy into it.

For Native Americans and progressive advocates of marginalized people, PSM neglects to tell the whole story.

What I was not told, for example, was that Squanto spoke English because he was kidnapped and enslaved in 1614 by Englishmen who were exploring along the New England coast. I wasn't told that when he got back to the "new world" he was shocked to discover that his whole tribe had been wiped out by smallpox which the colonists had imported from England.

What PSM failed to note was that in the Pequot War in 1637, 16 years after the "first Thanksgiving," the settlers burned a Wampanoag village and killed hundreds of men, women and children in retaliation for the murder of a white man whom they believed was killed by a member of that tribe. What was left out of the narrative was that indigenous Americans had been holding "thanksgiving" feasts for centuries if not millennia before 1621.

For people who don't want this myth to work, it won't. Here's what I mean. As I listen to people talk in coffee shops, local taverns and in the impeachment inquiry hearings, I have come to the conclusion that people don't really want what the Pilgrim-Squanto Myth portrays, i.e. a table where everyone is included, where our mutual interdependence is celebrated.

What we want is for our side to win. What we want — you and me, somewhere deep in our secret selves — is expressed in the following joke: "When two people get married, the two become one. The question is which one." James Hoggan put that way of approaching differences in the title of his book: I'm Right and You're an Idiot.

And finally, the myth is not compelling for the average Joe and Mary because they have their attention focused on enjoying a delicious meal tomorrow and shopping till they drop on Friday. 

The two subjects we avoid like the plague that killed Squanto's people are religion and politics. 

Here's the irony: If, in the picture of Thanksgiving we try to paint, we omit our human vulnerability to forces beyond our control, our need for other forces beyond our control to smile on us, the acknowledgment that we are interdependent, the admission that for the political process to work we have to be open to the other as a potential ally and the conviction that our differences can be complementary — if we avoid those essentials, there isn't much emotional/spiritual room left for gratitude.

Those essentials are the very things the Pilgrim-Squanto Myth was trying to inspire us with. If PSM is a vehicle that is no longer capable of carrying the freight, then we desperately need to find a dream to replace it — a dream that most of us can buy into.

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