A Difficult Conversation for Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Dinner: friends and family gather; recipes are shared; people travel great distances to be with loved ones. There’s something unique and special about the American Thanksgiving holiday.

I have fond memories of Thanksgiving from my childhood, with my mother making a unique stuffing for the turkey as well as a variety of pies and breads. Thanksgiving dinner in my home today draws on some newer recipes but with similar ingredients to those my mother used. What’s more unique are the people who typically share the dinner in my home.

This year like most years, our dinner will be shared with friends who have not experienced an American Thanksgiving in the past. Because we have a number of international friends, our guests often include those who haven’t shared the traditional feast. Over the years, we’ve had Thanksgiving guests from Latin America, Europe, and Asia. This year, a couple from India will be sharing cranberry relish, pumpkin pie, and wild rice stuffing. (Hold the turkey: as devout Hindus, they are vegetarian.)

This year, as in years past, I ponder what to share with our guests about the Thanksgiving story. Of course, there was the Mayflower and the landing at Plymouth Rock. It was there my religious fore-bearers (the Pilgrims and Puritans who formed Congregationalists churches which are now part of my denomination, the United Church of Christ) settled, struggled, and persevered to create a new life for themselves. Over time, a mythos emerged about these Pilgrim ancestors which is, well, how can I say this? Well….our stories about the Pilgrims are very loosely based on the historic facts. The truth behind the Thanksgiving mythos is actually difficult to accept.

Indeed, many lost their lives over the first few years. The Pilgrims didn’t know how to farm in the new environment. Winters were harsher than they had ever experienced in Europe. They made many mistakes and barely survived. Indeed, it was because of the skills of Native American people that the settlement wasn’t entirely lost. While the Pilgrims were thankful to God, as a group they were far from charitable toward the Native Americans who saved them from doom.

While the Wampanoag tribe offered food to the newly arrived Pilgrims within two days of their landing on Plymouth Rock, the pilgrims responded by stealing the tribe’s food supply, digging up their graves for pottery and cooking utensils, and then forced many Native people into slavery. The first Thanksgiving of 1621 was marked by the colonists inviting the Wampanoag tribe to a feast. Two hundred Wampanoag men died at that meal from an unknown poison. In 1637, a similar invitation by colonists led to the death of 700 members of the Pequot tribe. In 1676, a Thanksgiving proclamation was made to celebrate victory over the “savage heathens” that included a bloody conflict, the enslavement of indigenous people, and the public execution of the chief of the Wampanoag people who was drawn and quartered. The chief’s decapitated head was put on display on a pike in Plymouth square. For the Pilgrims, thanksgiving marked the brutality shown to the Native peoples.

The story of Thanksgiving as we know it today grew out of the late 19th Century practices. The story itself came to life in the work of artist Jennie Brownscombe who created an image of community, tolerance, and harmony shown in a 1914 issue of Life magazine.

It’s worth noting that as early as 1863, Pequot Indian Minister William Apess urged Native people to mourn the landing at Plymouth and bury the location in protest. A century later, in 1970, Massachusetts officials invited Frank B. James, President of the Federated Eastern Indian League, to speak at the Thanksgiving celebration. His brief speech stated:

“Today is a time of celebrating for you but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people. The pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans. Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers, little knowing that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.”

This year, as I invite guests to our Thanksgiving dinner who have little knowledge of colonial history and the origins of this holiday, I will try to find words to convey both the mythology of Thanksgiving as well as something of the tragic historical events. While I will try not to ruin the holiday mood, I can’t help but recognize that the religious intolerance, prejudice, and injustice that marked the Pilgrim colony continues to be part of the American landscape in our day. I am thankful that many of us have grown past the historic prejudices that have brought tragedy to the lives of many people in the past. But I am concerned about the ways intolerance and prejudice have a stranglehold on the nation. My best hope is that perhaps, just perhaps, the idyllic picture of Thanksgiving will inspire us to grow into our best selves – as people and as a nation.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to A Difficult Conversation for Thanksgiving Dinner

  1. Vicky from London, England says:

    Dear Lou

    I think it is better to tell the truth & give thanks to the Native Americans for their hospitality towards the Pilgrims and also forgive the Pilgrims for their shortcomings towards the Native Americans. This history is colourful and is a reminder that Colonialism happens today.

    Have a enjoyable thanksgiving.


  2. Lou says:


    Thanks for your comments. (I recently discovered that notification of comments have been going into my spam folder.)

    I agree that while we can’t correct the abuses of the past, we can be thankful for the hospitality and values of Native Peoples. Further, we can support indigenous people in maintain their cultures today as they struggle to maintain such rich heritage.


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