Being as this is Be Young and Shut Up, you know I’m gonna say some shit about Thanksgiving. But first, let’s have some ol’ timey good-naturedly racist fun and listen to Stan Freberg’s take on the Thanksgiving story and the sale of Manhattan!
My dad grew up listening to old radio, so as a matter of course, so did I. I’m pretty sure he has Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America on vinyl, which is how I ended up with a dubbed copy on cassette that I played for my second-grade class. What I really like about “Take an Indian to Lunch” (did you not actually click on the video? Shame), aside from being super fun, is that it treats the traditional Thanksgiving story with about as much respect as it deserves. It takes the Thanksgiving narrative that American kids are still being taught and makes it out to be a cynical, manipulative farce complete with a song-and-dance routine, which really is what the Thanksgiving story is. (No, I was not such a precocious child that I appreciated it on this level at age 7).
While the “facts” of the story are documented enough that I’m not going to take issue, the real problem is how the story is treated.
The inconvenient overarching fact of the Thanksgiving story is that, regardless of how much fun the pilgrims and Wampanoag had at the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag and every other native tribe ended up the subjects of genocide and domination by the pilgrims’ descendants.
Which wouldn’t ruin Thanksgiving as we know it for me, if not for the fact that Thanksgiving is really the only time this country pays Native Americans any mind at all (even Columbus day only includes them because of liberal whining). If this is the one day we’re going to think about them, it shouldn’t be in a cutesy hold-hands fairy tale way. That has its place, but not in a climate like this, where Native Americans are invisible 364 days of the year. I don’t want to complain about the Thanksgiving story any more than I have to, because this is some basic shit.
This season, I was directed to a really interesting perspective on Thanksgiving: that of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Ramona Peters. In an interview, she related the other side of the Thanksgiving story, and what Thanksgiving means to her personally. It’s required reading. Her tribe’s account contradicts many details of the “official” American story, and certainly contradicts the spirit and sentiment of it. But just because Thanksgiving has a dumb justification and accompanying legend, doesn’t mean it’s a dumb holiday.
“As a concept, a heartfelt Thanksgiving is very important to me as a person. It’s important that we give thanks. For me, it’s a state of being. You want to live in a state of thanksgiving, meaning that you use the creativity that the Creator gave you. You use your talents. You find out what those are and you cultivate them and that gives thanks in action.”
People who take issue with the celebration of pilgrims getting a foothold in America and learning skills that would eventually enable them to destroy the indigenous population are often shouted down as spoilsports, people who are stupid because stuffing, people who have no holiday cheer or who take no joy in family. But what the hell do pilgrims and “Indians” have to do with that stuff? You don’t need to have pilgrim hats or feathers on the table, or read some bullshit about how white people and Native Americans got along so famously that they gave us the whole country, to have a great meal where you reflect on the better things in your life.
Like Ramona Peters says, thanks-giving, harvest festivals, celebrations of bounty and family, are nearly universal. Who doesn’t love that stuff? Who doesn’t love stuffing? The thing about Thanksgiving, as it’s typically celebrated, is that it really is great. It’s like Christmas. What’s not to like about eating too much and drinking a lot and getting presents? This stuff has nothing to do with pilgrims, or Native Americans, or how you feel about them. Just like how Christmas is a commercialized nightmare that has generally lost sight of the great gift God gave us, the only gift we ever needed, His only son.
Given its traditional story and theme, Thanksgiving is a good opportunity for non-native people to learn about the tribes and nations that were destroyed for them to be sitting down to dinner. To reflect on their country’s brutal history, the monstrous facts of building a new nation, before they gorge on a sumptuous meal. Discussing the truth about Native Americans and their treatment isn’t going to ruin Thanksgiving. I mean, back to Christians, they tell the story of a dude being tortured and crucified before their holiday meal, and nobody loses their appetite. They pay respect, then enjoy themselves.
But, failing that, let’s just cut it out with the pilgrims and Indians crap. Thanksgiving has plenty of meaning to it without the racist propaganda.
And speaking of being human…