Thanksgiving, as we observe it now, is a mixture of pageantry and intimate family gatherings, but how much do you think about its history beyond the most superficial narratives?
A Short History of Modern Thanksgiving Foods
Modern Thanksgiving was “born” in 1846 by Sarah Josepha Hale. While she was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale advocated for the establishment of a formally observed national holiday on the last Thursday of November. Hale published a remarkable body of recipes to feed the new Thanksgiving tradition, which follow while boosting the popularity of her publication. From that point on, commercial interests shaped the evolution of how Americans would envision “authentic” Thanksgiving cuisine. During the early 20th companies battled for our palates and some won big, like Ocean Spray cranberries or Swift and Company’s Butterball turkey. Other marketing tactics, like Welch’s grape juice or Diamond walnuts, weren’t as successful and didn’t earn a place in our minds as traditional Thanksgiving fare.
While “giving thanks” fits nicely with the religious sensibilities of Puritan settler colonists that are at the center of Thanksgiving mythology, was the first Thanksgiving really a harvest feast? Some biblical scholars make an argument that the Puritans in America adopted the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, known as Sukkot, after the rejection of English celebrations like “Harvest Home” on the grounds that it—and most every other English celebration carried unmistakable pagan origins. However, there is a historical record for the origin of Thanksgiving feasting in the U.S.
In 1637, there was a massacre of more than 700 unarmed women, men, and children of the Pequot tribe during a gathering for the Green Corn Festival. The next day, “A day of Thanksgiving” was announced by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate the massacre. As settler colonists continued to wage wars of encroachment into Pequot territories, celebrations of “thanksgiving” were called for once again, but this time by the churches. A cycle of feasting to celebrate murder and mayhem of indigenous tribes would continue until George Washington recommended a single day to feast and celebrate “thanksgiving” rather than a separate feast for each and every massacre. However, it wasn’t until President Lincoln that the holiday was celebrated nationally.
No matter where you are in North America, you are on indigenous land. And so on this holiday, and any day really, I urge people to explore a deeper connection to what are called “American” foods by understanding true Native-American histories, and begin using what grows naturally around us, and to support Native-American growers. There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the beauty of the present. -- Sean Sherman
Indigenous Survivance and Settler Colonialism
Such stories of “thanksgiving” are extremely common (and continuous) among settler colonial states. Patrick Wolfe, the famed historian describes settler colonialism “settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure, not an event”, and that settler colonialism “destroys to replace” (Wolfe 2006). The goal of the settler colonial structure is to legitimize the settlers’ presence on indigenous lands through erasing indigenous claims to land and through the invention of narratives that replace problematic historical truths.
However, this goal is continually obstructed by indigenous survivance. Vine Deloria Jr. frames survivance as “combining both survival and resistance”(Deloria 1970). This is expressed as not only a critical refusal of imagined settler histories, such as Thanksgiving mythology, but also refusing settler futures that deny a place for indigeneity. Instead, indigenous futurisms encourage an essential shift from the Western gaze to a world in which indigeneity is not framed against the backdrop of the structures of settler colonialism. Indigenous futurisms transform the present into a launching point for a future that has left those settler structures, stories, and pageantry behind.
So, should we celebrate Thanksgiving?
Of course, we can’t answer that for you, but we recommend you read what Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, says about celebrating modern Thanksgiving and honoring native foods and cuisines.
Deloria, V. (1970). We talk, you listen: New tribes, new turf. New York: Macmillan.
Wolfe, Patrick (2006) Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native, Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4, 387-409, DOI: 10.1080/1462352060105624
Brayboy, Brian McKinley Jones. 2006. Toward a Tribal Critical Race Theory in Education. The Urban Review, Vol. 37, No. 5
Wolfe Patrick. 2012. Against the Intentional Fallacy: Legocentrism and Continuity in the Rhetoric of Indian Dispossession. American Indian Culture and Research Journal Vol.36 No.1
Dillon, Grace L. 2012. Walking the Clouds: an Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press