Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, which served as the first official declaration of the national holiday we celebrate this week, bears little resemblance to the holiday I remember learning about in school.
In the speech declared two years into the American Civil War, Lincoln called for “my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
The proclamation emphasizes unity and harmony in a time of military strife, but makes no reference to the feast shared by the Plymouth pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans that allegedly began the tradition of Thanksgiving.
Lincoln was not the first president to use the holiday for political purposes, nor was he the last. A century earlier, George Washington called for a day of “thanksgiving and prayer” in the aftermath of the American Revolution to bring the country together. During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt then tried to move the national holiday up a week to boost the economy in the weeks before Christmas, before facing backlash and returning Thanksgiving to its original date.
All three speeches are characteristic of everything that Thanksgiving in the United States is supposed to stand for. We give thanks for unity, prosperity, peace and national well-being. And at least in principle, there's nothing explicitly wrong with that.
What is cruelly ironic, however, is that this same holiday is so deeply connected with how Native American history is taught in the United States.
The first Thanksgiving, as most American children are taught in elementary school, took place in 1621 after a long and harsh winter during which the newly arrived Plymouth colonists almost starved to death. Local Native Americans taught the settlers how to adapt to the region, cultivate crops and fish, allowing the colony to survive. The settlers and natives then supposedly came together in a feast of gratitude and sharing that was known as Thanksgiving.
That is where my elementary school always stopped. Even in this short and skewed narrative, the bias in favor of the colonists is apparent. The celebration is labeled ‘Thanksgiving’ and not the day of ‘generosity’ because we are expected to put ourselves in the shoes of the thankful colonists. The story is framed so that the settlers are the ones we root for.
The remainder of the history is only more disturbing. Disease, war and forceful relocation denied the indigenous people of North America everything that the colonists were thankful for, everything that we and our leaders continue to claim we are thankful for.
To call the fourth Thursday of November ‘Thanksgiving’ is to blatantly wash over the violent history of our country. How can we give thanks for something that was taken with force from a people who today have a 25.4% poverty rate — the highest of any ethnic group in the United States?
Nicolas Rosenthal, an associate professor in the History Department and expert on American Indian history explains that it is important “we understand the myth and lore surrounding the holiday – exemplified by the caricatures of 'friendly Indians' welcoming the 'Pilgrims' – as part of a broader cultural trope that obscures the processes of conquest. Particularly in light of recent anti-racism protests that have sought to expose systematic oppression and give voice to people of color, Thanksgiving this year should be an opportunity to examine the implications for how we tell our histories, while acknowledging Native perspectives on the past and recognizing Indigenous peoples' present-day issues and concerns.”
The LMU Indigenous Student Union (ISU) expressed a similar position, referring me to their recent Instagram post where they write, "part of the work of decolonizing is becoming conscious of and then unlearning cultural myths such as the day we call 'thanksgiving'".
We don’t need to go to Plymouth to address this troubling history. The Bluff where LMU sits, as well as much of Los Angeles, was formerly inhabited by the Tongva people. A Tongva burial ground was recently discovered in the Playa Vista community just minutes away from LMU, and artifacts have been found on LMU’s campus. The Tongva population has dropped from approximately 5,000 at the time of European arrival in America to 1,700 as of 2008.
While there is nothing wrong with gratitude, the repeated association between thankfulness and the indigenous people of North America creates the misconception that our history is one that was peaceful and cooperative. To elevate the story of the supposed gathering between the Plymouth settlers and the Wampanoag people (who at this point had already experienced widespread disease and violence due to European settlement) while de-emphasizing the subsequent devastation to native people across the continent is to create a fictional historical narrative that shapes our collective understanding of the foundations of this country. This Thanksgiving, we ought to take time not to feel thankful but to reflect on the true history, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
This is the opinion of Veronica Backer-Peral, a junior film and television production, history and computer science triple major from Pasadena, California. Email comments to email@example.com. Follow and tweet comments to @LALoyolan on Twitter, and like The Loyolan on Facebook.