Monday, February 08, 2010

HUM 221: Thanksgiving, a national origin myth and 'the whole Pilgrims-and-Indians thing'

Interviewed on young adult author Tina Nichols Coury's blog Tales from Mount Rushmore, Spokane/Coeur d'Alene author Sherman Alexie had this take on Thanksgiving ...
[Q.] What is your favorite dessert and why?

[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.
What's ironic about that?

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.

“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.”
But American Indian nations sometimes are more interested in their own identity. Says Van Siclen:
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.

“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.”
So visitors to the Pequot museum learn about the profit, not pilgrims, and a variety of Native thanksgiving ceremonies.

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.1

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.
It'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:
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.

25 comments:

Pete said...

Like I said, the potato baloney is part of my wife's family tradition at Thanksgiving and Christmas. One year my sister-in-law made "lutfisk," which is a fish soup made of dried cod which has been soaked in lie and then rinsed off. It smells - and tastes - like something in the alley behind a seafood restaurant. It's authentic Swedish (and Norwegian), but we only tried it once!

Chris Day said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Hayes said...

My family does not really serve any cultural dishes. We have the standard dinner of turkey, taters, corn, and rolls with pumpkin pie for dessert. ithink having a nonreligious holiday is important because it is something that nearly all Americans can participate in. No one religion is singled out like Christmas or Hannukah. The importance of Thanksgiving to younger children is that it signifies peace between Native Americans and caucasians.

Pete said...

I think I misspelled "lye." Like in lye soap.

Jake Hill said...

Our family is just doing our thing sittin around just watchin some football. We might play a few games around the table. We always have to have a turkey then it usually ends in a fight. Everyone brings food something different.

lena ater said...

Well, the way i celibrate thanksgiving is we always have both ham and turkey. My favorite dish that my mother-in-law makes is broclie casirol. But one desert that no one can ever dupicate is my grandmothers Dutch Apple pie i don't know how she makes it but it's the best in the world. this is only my opinion though.

Jessica said...

My family does not have any set traditions, but Thanksgiving day usually plays out the same every year. For dinner we have turkey and ham, because i do not like turkey and my grandma thinks she needs to please everybody in the family. After dinner all of the men take a 10 hour nap (it seems like) and the women look at all the ads and play board games. We then plan what stores we are going to hit the next morning at 4 am.

dave maziarz said...

At my family thanksgiving we eat polish sausage for breakfast cause my grandpas polish. everything else is pretty traditional. watch a lot of football.

Roman said...

My family always goes out to shoot guns on Thanksgiving. Hunting is something most of us in my family enjoy so its nice to do something similar with all of my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. I believe it is important to have a non-religious holiday because it is something the entire nation can enjoy regardless of their culture.

Chris Day said...

I love my Grandma's baked mac and cheese! I also love her peanut butter cheescake! It's quite delicious. Bringing the family together is a fun time as well.

Kathleen said...

My family, both mom's side and dad's side, comes to our house and has a traditional turkey, a spiral ham, and a smoked turkey every Thanksgiving. My grandma also makes my all time favorite food, apple salad. Apple salad is a mixture of chunks of skinned red and green apples, purple grape halves, sliced banana, baby marshmallows, and chopped pecans. All of this is mixed with a homemade sauce made up of mayonaise, sugar, and a very small amount of water. Sounds kind of weird but taste great. I love it

Tara Proctor said...

A tradition in my family is to have chocolate pie for dessert. My grandmother makes it every year. She has taught me how to make it, but it's a lot of work so I leave that job to her. Other than that we really don't have any traditions. I come from a very small, but very loveing family.

TMAC said...

My family doesnt serve anything out of the norm. We have the turkey, mashed potatos, corn, rolls, the normal stuff, and cookies and pie for dessert. I think its good that there is a holiday that is nonreligios because everyone in America can participate in it. And its important to be taught at a young age to tecch the children about peace between us and the Natives.

Catey Rutschke said...

My family has no particular tradition when it comes to Thanksgiving. We all get together and eat the regular turkey, mashed potatoes and pies for dessert. It is a very non-religious event. Children are taught lessons of Thanksgiving in school to help them learn about how the Pilgrims and the Native Americans interacted when the Pilgrims first came to America.

Michael D. said...

My family doesnt really celebrate Thanksgiving. We just have whatever meal my mom makes that day. I do think it is important to have a nonreligious holiday because everyone can celebrate it. No one is signaled out because they belong to a different religion.

mikefleshman said...

The only tradition my family has involves everyone coming over for a late lunch and watching football. We just have the basic Thanksgiving foods; it's nothing specific really.

Lucas Baugher said...

At the Baugher Thanksgiving, everything is kept pretty traditional. I always look forward to eating my grandma's sweet potatoes. Usually while we are eating, we watch football on TV. Pumpkin pie and cherry pie are usually for dessert.

Brad Selvaggio said...

During thanksgiving we like to eat a lot of italian food because my family is from sicily. We have spagetti, suasage,and lasagna. we also have tradiontal thanksgiving food to like turkey mash potatos and corn. One of my favorite dishes is my uncles sweet potatoes that he makes. I usually eat like four of them because there so deliscous.

Shakeria said...

my family and i play texas hold em and blackjack after dinner.... the fold is pretty basic.

Alex said...

My family doesn't really serve any cultural dishes. We just have the usual turkey and ham. We sometimes also have pumpkin pie. I think that having this nonreligious holiday is a good thing. I love getting together with my family members and watching some football.

brokw said...

My family does the usual, sit around watch football and wait for dinner. Then we all eat and just go back to watching football.

logan eader said...

my family doesnt have any exotic dishes. we usually serve the tipical turkey, corn, potatoes and rolls. Celebrating a nonreligious holiday is important because it is something that almost everyone can participate in. Thanksgiving is important because it shows our younger generations the peace between caucasians and Native Americans.

calenevill said...

in my family our thanksgiving tradition is pretzel salad... its pretty much the bees knees.pretzel crust on the bottom, jello mixed with strawberries and whip cream on top. and the usual turkey, potatoes, and corn

Cait131 said...

In my family, we honestly don't have any certain traditions that we do. Both sides of my family do meet together of course, but the food varies each year, depending on what people want to make and bring. There's always the basic patatoes and turkey, much more different kinds of food and always lots of desert. I always enjoy Thanksgiving with my family though.

Josh said...

WE always have turkey and a bunch of other food and dessert. We pretty much just sit around, eat, and watch football. I also always fall asleep.