The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Thanksgiving is drawing close, and I still remember being taught in elementary school about the Pilgrims in their fancy black and white outfits, sitting down on the First Thanksgiving with a bunch of half-naked Indians to celebrate their sharing of food and mutual help. Nowadays though, we like to say “Native American,” as it is more politically correct than “Indian.” My question, then, is why is it still politically correct to depict the Thanksgiving myth in this way?
Every year on Thanksgiving Day since 1970, the 350th anniversary of Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has organized a Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass. They rightfully protest against the whitewashing of the story of the First Thanksgiving, and the racism and oppression their people still suffer to this day. They want everyone to know that the only thing true about the Thanksgiving myth is that the pilgrims would have all died without the support of the Wampanoag tribe, for which the generous Wampanoag people were rewarded with slavery and genocide.
The Pilgrims did not arrive on some unpopulated wilderness frontier, the American Indian tribes lived there, and every bit of land the Pilgrims acquired was effectively stolen (violently, more often than not) from those native tribes. UAINE points out that in addition to genocide, these Pilgrims from Europe also brought with them racism, religious oppression, sexism, anti-gay/lesbian bigotry, prisons, a class system, and a mercantile attitude that valued money over people’s lives. All of these, I would like to point out, are still issues we are facing almost 400 years later. Hell of a legacy right there.
I suppose it isn’t terribly surprising – we don’t exactly like to remember the atrocities committed against the American Indian tribes by the United States government and its predecessors. We still celebrate Columbus Day, honoring a man who enslaved multiple indigenous populations and created the system of exploitation that was responsible for the deaths of about 300,000 natives on the island of Hispaniola alone.
Considering how much importance we put on “political correctness” and “justice,” it is really incorrect and unjust that this myth of Thanksgiving should perpetuate. I would just like to remind folks that those early European explorers, all proclaimed Christians, proceeded to commit institutionalized genocide over all of North and South America. That’s two entire continents full of people that were either entirely or almost wiped out. I’m not saying that we should depreciate the accomplishments or the history of all these Europeans and Americans, what I am saying is that we need to be aware that they had flaws and committed horrible deeds at the expense of millions of people. We need to remember this and strive to overcome the tragic consequences of these actions. We need to use this history as an example of what not to do, and how to make ourselves better in the future.
On a final note, even the traditional image of the Pilgrim is wrong. All the paintings made of the First Thanksgiving were made at a later date, and the references the artists used were of contemporary and urban Puritans in Europe. Those fancy black and white outfits, clunky shoes, and fluffy dresses all make for fine city-wear, but not if you are out in the wilderness doing hard work. Besides, those outfits look dumb anyway.