On Thanksgiving Day, Native American Activists and Colin Kaepernick gathered for an Unthanksgiving Day festival on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Meant to highlight the struggles of Native Americans, this is a “day of mourning” for some, while for most of us it was a day of family, unity, food, and thanksgiving.
Unthanksgiving Day is the latest example of the backlash against a national holiday inspired by our founding that has become a celebrated time of unity for Americans in an all too divided society. UnThanksgiving maybe a thing, but it’s not a good one.
Indigenous People’s Day has already replaced Columbus Day in many cities and states across the country. Instead of celebrating the contributions of Italian-Americans including Christopher Columbus bringing the New World to the Old World — including the discovery of my tiny island in the Caribbean as I wrote about previously. We are led to view Columbus and other explorers as murders and rapists who spurred the colonization of North American and triggered the mass murders of its Native American inhabitants. We are urged to rethink history.
Now, former NFL-quarterback-turned-social-justice activist joined with Native American activists to lambast the Thanksgiving holiday. They don’t just want us to rethink history, they want us to rewrite it.
Thanksgiving is believed to have begun in 1621 when the Plymouth, Massachusetts colonists and Wampanoag Indians broke bread following a successful autumn harvest. That is acknowledged as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
Let’s not forget that there was much to be thankful for back then: Surviving the long and arduous voyage and New England winter, surviving illness and diseases, reaping a harvest of in the face of the harsh climate, and conquering the untamed, dangerous, and beautiful wilderness that blanketed North America.
Both Pilgrims and Native American allies had much to be thankful for.
Today’s rethinking history movement wants to erase this history and replace it with the history of the Native Americans. Truly, many Native Americans were displaced by the expansion of “Americans.” Many were also massacred or died from diseases.
We cannot paint the relationship between settlers and Native Americans as entirely toxic or one-sided either. Native Americans benefited from new trading partners and new inventions including firearms.
Not all interactions between tribes and colonies were bloodshed with Native Americans on the losing end.
Let’s also not forget that Native American tribes warred against each other and wiped out their adversaries — sometimes practicing cannibalism and human sacrifice. (As with the peaceful inhabitants of my island in the Caribbean who were reportedly eaten by a warring tribe.)
Perhaps a better way to think about history is that it’s complicated.
Recognizing the complicated history of Thanksgiving and its place in our national story should not negate the blessings, benefits, and values that united the Pilgrims and Native allies while recognizing that explorers, settlers, and Native Americans were men (and women) who engaged in behaviors that we reject today.
The Unthanksgiving and rethinking history movements mask a deeper and more sinister motivation.
In his new book, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past, Jarrett Stepman provides insight into this war on Thanksgiving as being an attack on “the Puritan ethos: the values of hardy folk who braved incredible hardship so that future generations could enjoy a new and better world than the one their ancestors lived in.” Read my colleague Charlotte Whelan’s review of the book here.
In a country built on freedom, Colin Kaepernick and activists get to protest holidays like Thanksgiving and paint it however inaccurately as they would like to support their cause. But, they don’t get the make up the facts.
We should be thankful for the founding of our nation because, without it, the world we live in would not be what it is today.