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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A different take on Thanksgiving

Published: November 20, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot</i>

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Next week most students will travel home to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with their families, others will just enjoy the free time with friends and yet some others won’t even remember what they did for Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, this is a tradition deeply rooted in American society. It all began in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when the Pilgrims decided to hold a harvest feast to thank God, as well as to celebrate together with the Wampanoags, who helped them survive in the difficult “new” land. It really is a nice story, so much so that in the middle of the Civil War in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day as a way to unite the nation. The story was again used to unite a warring nation when in 1942 it became an official holiday under President Roosevelt.

But there are also a few Native Americans who will not join this celebration, instead they will have “National Day of Mourning”, or an “Un-Thanksgiving Day”. But why? Did we not celebrate the “first” Thanksgiving with 90 indigenous people who helped the settlers through their harsh first new years? Certainly, but that is only half the story…

I first began to wonder about this when the controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez decided to change the name of “Columbus Day” to “Day of Indigenous Resistance.” I thought of it as just another thing that he felt the need to change such as the official name of the republic, the time, the flag, the seal, etc. As a result, statues of Columbus have been spray painted and even toppled around the country. It is a real shame, and I do not know where the culture of my country will end up. But this was not Chávez’s intention; he only changed the name to commemorate the struggle of the indigenous people when the European colonists arrived on their lands. After all, Chávez himself is European decent. I have to admit that maybe Chávez is right this time.

There is a lot of debate about what actually happened during that first Thanksgiving, and being such a historic event, it is hard to understand what actually happened. Random searches on Google have led me to dozens of articles, each with a different twist to the story, each arguing for one or the other point. An important fact that I found was that native people traditionally observed Thanksgiving as a daily ongoing celebration, but for the Puritans it was a big, one-day event because of the harsh conditions they endured and survived.

But why would the Puritans invite the natives to this event anyway?

Is it because they helped them survive their first year, or maybe to enter into mutual assistance? Insinuating will lead to nowhere, and the reason remains unclear, but if you can figure it out, please let me know.

One thing is for sure: Many of the few natives who survived the smallpox were quickly removed from their lands, slaved and murdered. The native people that at one time helped the newly arrived Puritans to survive were betrayed, and what better proof of that than to look around and see how many Native Americans are left.

Do not get me wrong, the encounter of the two worlds brought development to this backward continent. Today, the United States is an example of a truly democratic nation (though it still needs improvement), bringing opportunity and happiness to many.

This, however, does not justify the great injustice that took place on since the original Thanksgiving Day, nor does it warrant a nation’s attempt to forget about this injustice with a Thanksgiving holiday. This holiday is valuable in many aspects, such as becoming grateful to God, bringing families together for a good meal, uniting the American people and even improving the economy. But to celebrate this holiday while completely ignoring what may have happened is an insult to our intelligence.

So this Thanksgiving, I urge you to do some research on this different perspective on history. You might be surprised at how little you may know.

Of course it will be difficult to understand, or even accept, that Thanksgiving was hiding such dark episodes of history, but what you should realize is that this is only a celebration created by men, nothing more and nothing less. You can design Thanksgiving as you wish, and not let others design it for you. In fact, neither turkey nor potatoes were part of the first Thanksgiving menu, maybe not even pumpkin pie! Someone decided to celebrate it this way, and so can you.

As someone who is not from the United States, I do not celebrate this holiday. But if I were you I would give thanks for health, democracy and for the beautiful country that the United States is today. The same mistreatment of indigenous people took place in the rest of the continent, yet no other country has come to understand human rights and law like the United States.

Yes, Chávez did well on changing the name of Columbus Day, but he would do better by acting on the improvement of human rights and the application of law rather than just talking. We cannot change the past, but we can improve the future.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!