[Q.] What is your favorite dessert and why?What's ironic about that?
[A.] I'm not supposed to have sugar, but when I do I always go for pumpkin pie. It tastes great and I love the year-round irony of an Indian celebrating Thanksgiving.
Let's find out.
But first, I want us to blog on the following question. Think of your family's Thanksgiving traditions, your in-laws' and/or those of other people you know. Is there anything unique about them? Any ethnic foods like pickled herring or Swedish potato baloney (no, I am not making that up) served with the turkey and cranberry sauce? What is the importance of having a non-religious holiday to celebrate family, food and (of course) football in a multicultural, pluralistic society? Why make such a big deal of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a feast in elementary school? What values are we celebrating that way? Post your answers as comments to this blog.
There's more to Thanksgiving than turkey and football, if you think about it. First, we'll look at how the holiday serves as an origin myth that "describe[s] how some new reality came into existence." That reality is America, and the Thanksgiving story also qualifies as a national myth because it is "an inspiring narrative or anecdote about a nation's past. Such myths often serve as an important national symbol and affirm a set of national values." In a 1995 article titled "A Folklorist's View of the Ubiquitious, Universal, Populist Turkey and Thanksgiving" by Esaúl Sánchez, folklore professor Roger D. Abrahams of the University of Pennsylvania is quoted as saying:
Other holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, are tinged with a connection to a church. But Thanksgiving is the holiday when people from any kind of persuasion feel that they can get together with their families and celebrate. It has succeeded in maintaining old-fashioned family values on one particular occasion.Abrahams adds:
[Thanksgiving] has taken the place that the Fourth of July used to have. The parades and fireworks brought everyone together in terms of sharing the history. ... July Fourth celebrated a people's revolution. It doesn't do that anymore. Instead, Thanksgiving has become the all-American, inclusive festival.Once we've explored how the Thanksgiving story affirms American values, especially as many of us learned it in school, we'll look at origin myths of some of the 500-plus Native American cultures in North America.
American Indians are very much a part of the Thanksgiving story. But their reactions to it are often complex, or, like Alexie's, ironic.
According to Bill Van Siclen, arts reporter for the Providence (R.I.) Journal, living history sites in New England like Old Sturbridge Village and Plimouth Plantation, where the Pilgrims settled, now try to reflect Native American attitudes and traditions into their programs:
In fact, a growing number of historic sites and museums now try to incorporate Native American viewpoints in their presentations of Colonial life and culture. And nowhere is that effort more visible — or more prone to moments of cognitive dissonance — than in programs and activities surrounding Thanksgiving.But American Indian nations sometimes are more interested in their own identity. Says Van Siclen:
“Sometimes it’s a challenge,” says Thomas Kelleher, a curator at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass. “The traditional Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving is so strong that it can be hard to add anything new. But we’ve also found that people are also very interested in learning more about the history of the holiday, especially from the Native American point of view.”
By contrast, you won’t find many Colonial-era displays at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, Conn. Part of the same complex that includes the mega-popular Foxwoods Resort and Casino, the museum exists mainly to tell the story of the Pequots, an Algonquian tribe that settled in what is now central and eastern Connecticut.So visitors to the Pequot museum learn about the profit, not pilgrims, and a variety of Native thanksgiving ceremonies.
“We don’t really don’t do the whole Pilgrims-and-Indians thing here,” says Richmond, a member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation who serves as the museum’s programming director. “Like any museum, we try to insure that the information we present is fair and accurate. But we also have our own perspective.”
On the Oyate website, is a useful analysis or "deconstruction" of Thanksgiving myth and historical reality by Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin. We'll look at it in class. Does any of it surprise you? Oyate is "a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly." Like the Pequot museum, it has its own perspective.
Plimouth Plantation is a living history museum at Plymouth, Mass., the site of the Pilgrims' village, that uses rigorous historical research to reconstruct the lives of English settlers and the local Indians, the Wampanoag (wamp-a-NOH-ug) people. The directory of Thanksgiving Articles" on its website has by far the best explanation of how Thanksgiving got to be so important a national celebration -- click on "1. As American as Pumpkin Pie." By Karin Goldstein, Curator of Original Collections, it begins:
A November afternoon, 1910… Two immigrant factory workers are eating lunch. “Marcella,” says one woman to her friend, “why do we have this Thursday as a day off?” “I don’t know,” her friend replies. “Something about the chicken holiday.” This is how the mother of one Plymouth resident was introduced to Thanksgiving.1It's well worth reading. Also an explanation of "Native Traditions of Giving Thanks" by Nancy Eldredge, Education Manager of the Wampanoag Indian Program. It wasn't a one-shot deal, she says:
This tradition of American culture must have seemed bewildering to newcomers. As reformers pondered how to teach new immigrants how to become good Americans, many looked to examples from the past. Since the early 20th century, the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving have been used to teach both new Americans and school children about American history and values. This is just one of many ways that people have looked at the holiday over time.
Thankfulness was woven into every aspect of Wampanoag life. If an animal was hunted for food, special thanks were also given to the Creator and to the spirit of the animal. If a plant was harvested and used for any purpose, or a bird or a fish, if an anthill was disrupted, gratitude and acknowledgement were given for the little ones’ lives. To this day it is the same with most Native people.