‘Woke’ From My Tryptophan Slumber

By Gwyn Lurie   |   December 7, 2021
Classic idealization of the First Thanksgiving, where the Indigenous were never actually invited. Perhaps that’s why only the pilgrims had seats.

It may have slipped by you with everything else that’s been going on lately — the new variant and two national murder cases — that this year was our country’s 400th Thanksgiving! And all was going well at my family’s annual Turkey Day celebration at my sister’s home in Los Angeles.

Until my sister made the choice to acknowledge the Native Indigenous and the brutalities they suffered and simply put out there for group discussion the possibility that our grade school notions and nostalgic depictions of Thanksgiving are not politically correct, or not correct at all. 

Historian David Silverman’s book This Land Is Their Land; The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving does a great job getting granular on how we brutalized the Native Americans in pretty much every way conceivable. The book also had the misfortune of getting published almost exactly simultaneously with when the coronavirus landed. So, like the Native Americans themselves, “The Troubled History of Thanksgiving” has hardly gotten the attention it deserves.

A lot has happened in the two years since Silverman’s revision of our Thanksgiving myth. COVID went from Wuhan to global. George Floyd and BLM happened. What is beyond refute is the real story of what happened at that fateful first Thanksgiving got lost in the shuffle. Spoiler alert: that tribe from that first Thanksgiving was ultimately slaughtered by the Pilgrims — except for the “lucky” ones who got sold into slavery.

The salient parts of Silverman’s book are these. Thanksgiving became an official holiday under Lincoln who was trying to give a morale boost to the Union after the gruesome Battle of Gettysburg (where 50,000 died in three days). For you history buffs, the Gettysburg Address came just a few days before Lincoln “declared” Thanksgiving. But the Thanksgiving concept was actually the brainchild of Josepha Hale, an activist and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” 

Hale’s idea behind Thanksgiving was a coexistence fantasy (others call it “imperialist nostalgia”) that we could all sit around a table together and enjoy a good meal. Or at least the white people could. The Indigenous are rarely depicted as having a seat at the table. 

 In reality,  après that First Thanksgiving for which we just celebrated the 400th anniversary, the Pilgrims decimated those very same Indigenous as well as many other native tribes. In the process, the settlers destroyed most of Rhode Island and burned Providence to the ground. Says who? These were the official findings of the Colony of Rhode Island. The chief from that first Thanksgiving’s son was beheaded by the Pilgrims not so long thereafter and his head left on a pike. For months.

All of which begs the question: with Thanksgiving’s traditional whitewashing of Pilgrim brutality, now that we know better, should Thanksgiving go the way of the Confederate monuments? This was my sister’s question. Should it be dumped? Amended? Up-ended? 

I thought everyone in my family would basically give this idea thoughtful discussion or, at the very least, lip service. Something along the lines of, “Yeah, we screwed the Indians over, we should do better.” Which seems to be where our debt to the Indigenous gets left every year. Stacked up on the runway behind discussions of reparations for slavery, “doing more” for the homeless, etc.

However, this year, in a surprise move, our Turkey Day reflection devolved into a heated debate replete with profanities and name calling, exposing a heretofore unknown family political chasm between “Team Blue” led by my nephew and “Team Red” led by one of his uncles. All those great suggestions Dan Meisel makes for how to have civil discourse in this issue (read his piece on page 11)? We threw those totally out the window.

One thing became clear: The Thanksgiving as 99% of us celebrate it is at the very least culturally insensitive. But as my sister asked at our Thanksgiving dinner, what’s the solution? Should we erase the whole bloody holiday?

I think the recent controversy surrounding Native Americans and our capital’s NFL team is relevant, wherein enough people protested loudly enough till the Redskins changed their name to the generic, vaguely humorous, and post-woke “Washington Football Team.”

Whether or not we change the name of the holiday — Thanksgiving Festivus? Turkey Day? — I personally think it’s a special thing to have a holiday where we gather with family and friends, those who agree with us and those who don’t, share a delicious meal, enjoy each other’s company, and express thanks for all we have. But like every other historical moment, regardless of what we call the day, I think it’s important for us to look at it squarely, to understand and acknowledge it for all its complexity — the good, the bad, and the ugly. And yes, to accept responsibility, as a people and as a nation, for the damage we’ve caused along the way. Then we can enjoy a delicious meal and fall asleep in peace, helped by an overdose of tryptophan.

But apparently, that’s a myth, too.


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