Over the years, many Reconstructionist historians, atheists, and others have bashed Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the nation’s founders, European and other early entrepreneurs to America, explorers in America, slave owners, and Christians for their part in destroying Native culture, and expanding the free enterprise system. They remind me of women who have been abused in relationships, and blame all men for everything wrong around them!
But, just like ALL men are NOT responsible for the abuse done to women, neither can we blame those above for the abuse done to Native Peoples, African slaves, or to the environment. Yes, some of those with the above labels have done wrong—they just happen to be human, or greedy, or even evil. But to blame entire groups is not accurate. Let’s take Thanksgiving for example.
Some of the early settlers in America were looking for a place where they could practice their belief in the Creator without being abused by those with power. When they found a measure of peace and survived harsh winters after burying many others, they were thankful to be in a new land. They didn’t come to take over land from the Native People; they heard it was a New World, and that they could start a new life without powerful people controlling their lives. They even tried to make peace with the Native Peoples, and find agreement to live together. Some of the Native Peoples helped them survive in a weather to which they were unaccustomed. Some of the Native Peoples welcomed them as new neighbors as there was plenty of land. And, some of the Native Peoples taught them how to plant food, go after game, and survive in a land new to the new arrivals, but well-known by those who had long history in the land.
The Pilgrims gave thanks to the Creator for the help from the Native Peoples. They gave thanks for those who had survived a cruel winter. They gave thanks for the opportunity to start a fresh, and free, life in a land with so much potential. Whether people were religious or not, the Pilgrims were religious, and thanked the Creator for all, for food, survival, and opportunity. They had a time to sit down with the Wampanoag Native Americans at their thanksgiving table July, 1623 for three days, thankful for life, fellowship, the rain that saved the harvest, and good food as a result of the rain. Unfortunately, this fellowship only lasted a few years as more people came to these shores, ignoring the ways of the local citizens, and turning to their god of Greed. Some historians say that celebrations in Florida, Texas, and Virginia happened before the gathering at Plymouth and came to be known as “Forefather’s Day.”
It was one of the Founding Fathers, President George Washington, who recognized the time and set the time aside to give thanks on a national day, October 3, 1789, even though there were those who opposed his religious inference. However, he emphasized that the holiday would be inclusive for Americans of all faiths. Then, along came President Abraham Lincoln. His desire was to keep the Union together perhaps more than to set the African American slaves free. And, like President George Washington, he really didn’t want to arm ex-slaves and free African Americans to fight the English, or even to fight Anglo Americans in the South. However, he was pushed to arm these men after considering the South was arming slaves to fight those from the North, and so many African Americans wanted to fight that he was forced to put them in uniform, and then forced to concede to some of the demands of the South if he wanted to bring healing to the nation. So, he called the Nation to prayer during a time of Thanksgiving to ease the transition of the South into forming one country again.
Another President, Franklin Roosevelt, recognized Thanksgiving, but caused a firestorm by changing the date to fourth Thursday in November to allow more shopping days for Christmas, from the fifth Thursday, to which people were accustomed. But, Thanksgiving survived and even grew when magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, a widow and penniless, worked diligently to make Thanksgiving a national holiday for all Americans. Later in the 1970s, Native People learned to hate Thanksgiving, Christopher Columbus, and all that stood for progress over them. Many saw the time as a time of betrayal by the descendants of the early Pilgrims, Puritans, and settlers. Instead of working with Native Americans and respecting their laws and customs, including their burial lands, late arriving immigrants and some greedy Americans began taking more land from the Native Peoples, continuing to kill and disrespect them, cheating them, and pushing more of them onto lands that were not suitable for the sustainability of their livelihood. Native Peoples could not see any thanks for them during the season of Thanksgiving. While others prospered, their way of life quickly diminished, and their wealth was taken away. However, the o92nd Street Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in New York did manage to take the Thanksgiving season as an opportunity to do some good for those who were in need. Just how much good has been done for the Native Peoples is still up for discussion.
Nevertheless, many Americans who honor Thanksgiving have become thankful for their prosperity; thankful for an opportunity to share with others; and thankful to be able to learn how to learn from different cultures, and thankful for their contributions. Many Americans (including myself and my children) over the years leave their Thanksgiving dinners and serve in soup kitchens, help out in food banks, or do some acts of charity. For some, it is very difficult to become thankful, walking past homeless people on sidewalks around Macy’s or other stores, or enjoying peace by watching the football games being interrupted by news of war overseas, girls caught up in human trafficking, crime in the inner cities, and high unemployment in this land of plenty.
So, in 2017, when you sit down to a fine meal of veggies only, or fish and rice, or turkey, cranberries, mash potatoes, gravy, green beans, varied salads, pie, cake, ice cream, and a drink (or several!), remember some of the words of Ben Franklin who expressed as only a pundit could regarding gratefulness for “…full Enjoyment of Liberty, civil and religious.” However, since Native Peoples and many African Americans lack such “full enjoyment,” America still has some work to do to really honor the time of Thanksgiving in 2017, and each day in every way. We can review the history of Thanksgiving and how those who came up with the phrase “thanksgiving,” can include prayer and worship as we move forward. Of course, prayer and worship should include helping those less fortunate as an outward show of the outgrowth of prayer and worship. This was illustrated by Representative Elias Boudinot to allow the citizens to do such after an arduous time of the ratification in 1877 of the Constitution.
America has come a long way in honoring the holiday of Thanksgiving, now with the Macy’s Parade, football all day, feasting, and sometimes, helping others. Perhaps in 2017, we will remember the pain of the Native People during this holiday, understanding that not all of them own a share of a casino or smoke shop, many have become addicted to some form of drug, causing them to bring abuse on family members, and that many STILL don’t feel respected in the land that was formerly owned by their ancestors. Perhaps, instead of feeding a homeless person or giving a blanket, each of us can adopt a Native family, adopt a homeless family, adopt an African American family, or adopt a newly-arrived immigrant from a war-torn country, and help them develop their talents into providing them with a real Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. [Adapted in part from Melanie Kirkpatrick’s book: Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience]