As “Thanksgiving” Nears 400, Unitarians Seek “To Make Peace With Our Past”

Just as the year 1992 was controversial, marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, so we will be coming up on a new series of controversial anniversaries. In 2021, many people will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first “Thanksgiving feast.”

The question is: How do we remember and acknowledge these significant dates? Do we hold onto our cherished myths, or do we look at these as opportunities to embrace our higher selves and acknowledge our painful past?

The Unitarian Universalists already are taking on that question. At their upcoming General Assembly, June 22-26 in Columbus, Ohio, they will consider a resolution to reconsider what “Thanksgiving Day” means, and reflect on the broader issues of colonialism and its brutal impact on indigenous peoples. The resolution reads in part:

WHEREAS the year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the ship “Mayflower” in the region that is now known as New England; and …
WHEREAS several of the New England congregations that were established during the 1600s continue today as Unitarian Universalist congregations; and NOTING the role of Unitarian Universalists in developing the holiday that is known as “the American Thanksgiving Day”; …

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that this General Assembly encourages all Unitarian Universalists to enter a time of education, careful reflection, and healing, for the years 2016-2021. We ask that special attention be given to the suffering, indignity, and loss that native peoples have suffered since the early 1600s.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899).
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). (Wikipedia)

The classic painting at right shows  some key cultural myths this country has held about the first Thanksgiving. The painting’s basic details are wrong, but that is a minor point. The Wampanoag are shown here as if they were Plains Indians.

More to the point, the interpretation is wrong. The painting depicts the Pilgrims feeding the Wampanoag. Yet the Pilgrims were dependent on the Wampanoag, not the other way around. Most people would not glean from this painting that it was the Wampanoag who provided the Pilgrims with food — and the knowledge of how to raise it — that ultimately secured the Pilgrims’ survival.

(For more, see a 2011 article in Indian Country Today,  Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story. It notes that the Wampanoag contributed five deer to the feast because there was not enough food.)

Most significantly, notice how the painting emphasizes a mythical harmony between the Puritans and Wampanoag. (The Wampanoag woman and Puritan women in the upper left seem like old friends chatting about Bingo night.) If it ever existed, friendship was fleeting. Forced conversions, forced treaties, and terrible loss of life and land was just around the corner for Native peoples.

Many people still live in that painting. The majority culture today clings to the “we are a good, generous and friendly people” version of the Thanksgiving story. It is comfortable story. It is a painful thing to let go of that comfortable story and take a broader look.

Letting go of the comfortable story takes courage.

The Unitarian Universalist resolution concludes as follows:

To prepare for the future, we must make peace with our past. As we approach the Plymouth Colony quadricentennial dates, we ask for religious education programs that acknowledge the Radical Reformation and the religious Dissenters and Separatists of the 1600s. The story of religious Dissenters and Separatists is part of our Unitarian Universalist story and their influence is still with us. We ask for religious education programs that affirm the spiritual wisdom of Native American leaders. In today’s world, we know that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence. With this awareness in mind, we ask for a time of truth and reconciliation for all Americans for the years 2016-2021.

Native American individuals and nations could well be very skeptical of this paper promise. A number of denominations have passed resolutions about healing, reconciliation, and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. In spite of these many resolutions, Native nations still struggle with the effects of historical trauma. They still struggle to recover their lands, languages and cultures.

We can only hope that momentum continue to grow, and that Unitarians and other people of good will live up to their words and work towards concrete actions of truth telling, healing, and repair.


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