Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated in the United States since 1789 and as a federal holiday since 1885. The Episcopal Church numbers it among the major feasts in the Book of Common Prayer. Yet in recent years the practice of celebrating this holiday has undergone scrutiny and opposition by many, namely Indigenous Native American people. This critique is for good reason.
The Traditional Thanksgiving Day Narrative Is A Myth
While it is commonly seen as a day to give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received in our lives, the story of “the first Thanksgiving” is a narrative that ignores the devastating effects European colonization had, and continues to have, on the Indigenous people who reside in the United States. It is a narrative of America, one that is rooted in the Columbus Discovery and Manifest Destiny mythologies, which were influenced by the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine, a summary of papal edicts in the 15th and 16th centuries, legitimized European and Christian dominance of the Western Hemisphere. It continues today as the unacknowledged foundation for the systemic racism found in America and the Church. The traditional Thanksgiving Day narrative does not confront any of this rhetoric; rather, it supports it with a misleading story that is not just a myth, but a myth with an agenda. It extols Manifest Destiny and whitewashes the responsibility of the invading European nations (including what became known as the United States) of their role in a systemic process of land theft and genocide. It is a deception, and one that our country has gobbled up.
Thanksgiving Day: An Alternative View
Despite attempts to annihilate us, Indigenous people did not disappear. We are still around to tell our story. Most of us do celebrate Thanksgiving Day but from a different perspective. To us, it is about families gathering and feasting and giving thanks to the Creator who has given us the gift of resiliency and empowered us to survive in the face of all odds. This has always been a part of our culture since before the arrival of Europeans, and it will continue to be so.
In order to fully come to terms with our history, all Americans need to consider and take seriously the interpretations of past events from alternative perspectives. Abandoning the traditional Thanksgiving Day narrative is central to this reconciliation. Replacing it with an acknowledgment of what actually happened to America’s Indigenous peoples, and the role the Church played in it, is of paramount significance. It promotes an honest examination of our past. It dispels the myth of white dominance. It tells Indigenous people that we are not relics of the past, that we are very much still here, and we are a significant part of the American story, and in our own right, not as helpers of colonization. The Church should be a central part of making this transition happen. By doing so the Church will help correct the mistakes of the past that it created in the first place and liberate the Gospel from narratives based on greed and hate.
Moving Forward: Two Places to Start
The Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in 2009, and most mainline Christian denominations have also done so since then. But it’s taken over 400 years to get to this point, and substantive change is still far off. Two ways of moving forward are land acknowledgments and truth-telling: that is, publicly acknowledging the Indigenous tribes that once inhabited the territories we call our homes today, admitting to what happened to them, and listening to them tell their stories and witness to how colonization still affects them today. These necessary practices allow for the Indigenous narrative to be told and taught. They provide a place for Indigenous people in the nation and in the Church. They tell the good news that Indigenous people are still here.
For a sample Land Acknowledgement, click here.
The featured image (by Gordon Johnson on Pixabay) represents the traditional Thanksgiving mythological story.