Food for thought: The politics of Thanksgiving

    With the month of November comes leaves falling, grades dropping and the anticipation of a Thanksgiving meal so satisfying, you have to unbutton your pants in order to sit down. While some Northwestern students are heading home for the feast, this year’s celebration marks many international students’ first Turkey Day in the States. According to Medill freshman Stavros Agorakis, who hails from Greece and has therefore drawn his interpretation of the American holiday from the (many) Thanksgiving episodes of Friends, Thanksgiving seems to be a picture-perfect scene. “It’s the holiday that all the family gets together [and] people sit around the table and say what they’re thankful for,” Agorakis said.

    Perhaps not as commonly associated with November is Indigenous Heritage Month, which when thought about alongside the roots of the Thanksgiving holiday, poses an interesting question: What is it that we're really celebrating?

    To understand this, assistant English Prof. Kelly Wisecup, who is teaching a course focusing on Native American literature Winter Quarter, looked to the past to help explain the present.

    According to Wisecup, there are really two origin stories for Thanksgiving – but most Americans only know one.

    This common story is as follows: In 1621, after the Pilgrims survived their first winter in America, they came together with the local Native American nation, the Wampanoags, and shared a meal supposedly representing “the peaceful relationship between these two peoples,” Wisecup explained.

    “Participation in this feast would have been seen by the Wampanoags as a sign of their friendship with the Pilgrims,” Wisecup said. “The Wampanoags would help the Pilgrims and the Pilgrims would help the Wampanoags.”

    Never mind the fact that, according to Northwestern graduate student Ian Saxine, who studies both Native American and colonial history, “a lot of [the story] is made up.”

    “It’s a story that doesn’t include all the account of conquest and conflict and dispossession of land, … a really partial story,” Wisecup said.

    When asked why this version of the story is so often taught at elementary schools, Saxine explains, “There’s this desire to use history and mythology to teach moral lessons to kids and give them something to feel good about or to aspire to.” He theorizes that educators are using the Thanksgiving story to illustrate values they deem important.

    “I don’t think it’s necessarily part of some conscious effort to ignore or marginalize or sweep under the rug all of the bad things that European colonists did to Native Americans,” Saxine said.

    Just because the perpetuation of the so-called “Thanksgiving myth” may not be intentional, according to Professor Wisecup, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to correct the record.

    “For a lot of Native people, Thanksgiving is this holiday that tells this story about the origins of America that is an erroneous story, and one that contributes to their continued erasure or invisibility,” she said.

    Saxine finds there is a similar problem with Columbus Day; Columbus is often painted as a heroic figure to children.

    “Once you try and turn any historical event into sort of a morality play with heroes and villains and people you’re rooting for and people you’re rooting against, then all that nuance gets really messy,” Saxine said. “You’re going to end up doing violence to what actually happened.”

    These complicated roots aren’t always considered when the holiday is put into practice. When Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863, he was likely “envisioning this day as a moment of union” for a country torn apart by the Civil War, rather than a celebration of its colonial roots, Wisecup said.

    Saxine believes that today, Thanksgiving’s past is largely ignored. “I think most people try and ignore the mythology about the Indians and the Pilgrims hugging and sitting around a table,” he said.

    That does not mean there isn’t room for change, and Wisecup believes education is the way to make that shift. In her opinion, students and educators at Northwestern have “this really fantastic opportunity to change the erroneous story that has been told about Thanksgiving and the origins of America.” Wisecup hopes that students in her classes, as well as students who read this year’s One Book One Northwestern, The Inconvenient Indian, will use their newfound knowledge to impact the next generation.

    “I’m really optimistic about the way in which students going forward can start to shape that history,” she said.


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