Happy Thanksgiving week from all of us at Trains and Toy Soldiers! We appreciate this as a time to give thanks for all that we have, to connect with loved ones (hopefully over some delicious shared meals), and to celebrate gratitude and joy. At the same time, since we love learning about the histories of our products (check out some of our historical and product spotlights on the blog!), it’s important that we consider the roots of this holiday.
Thanksgiving is a federal holiday in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday of November. It was originally a harvest festival, and has been celebrated intermittently since 1789, “with a proclamation by George Washington after a request by Congress” (Priscilla & Wikipedia). Thomas Jefferson elected not to observe Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving did not become a federal holiday until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in 1863 during the American Civil War. Lincoln proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date between 1939 and 1941, but from 1942 onwards, Thanksgiving has been proclaimed by Congress as being on the fourth Thursday in November, as Lincoln had mandated (Wikipedia).
What is known as the "First Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the “New World” in October 1621. The colonists in New England were used to regular “thanksgiving” days of prayer, thanking god for blessings. The “First Thanksgiving” feast lasted three days (Wikipedia). Myths have suggested that Native Americans and Pilgrims sat down together to feast in peace and harmony, but those myths may be based in a desire to obscure the darker truth – that this era was the start of a genocide against Native Americans that would “reduce the number of Indians from more than one million to about 200,000 by the beginning of the 20th century” (Giago).
The notion of Thanksgiving has been part of many Native American cultures for centuries. “Wopila” celebrations are thanks-giving celebrations for many Indian people in the Great Plains. Wopila celebrations can occur on occasions such as graduations from high school or college, recovery from illness or injury, or children returning home from service in the military (Giago). Many Native Americans also celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, but some people have eschewed the holiday, instead suggesting a national day of mourning and remembrance of the genocide that European colonizers inflicted upon the people who were already living in America.
In Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving exists alongside the National Day of Mourning, which has formally existed since 1970, organized by Wampanoag leader Frank James (a.k.a. Wamsutta). The National Day of Mourning, which is now organized by the United American Indians of New England, is a “reminder of the ‘democide and continued suffering of the Native American peoples’” (Carter), who are still subject to extreme racism and economic violence in America. The reality of what colonizers did to Native Americans, and what is still being done to Native Americans, is often erased in educational systems and in public discourse.
The holiday of Thanksgiving, however, is not universally renounced, and it would be reductive to portray only a single stance toward Thanksgiving in Native American communities, which are incredibly diverse and consist of 573 federally recognized Indian Nations in the U.S. (NCAI). Heather Jackson, a Native American student from American River College, said she thinks Thanksgiving is a good thing. Jackson is proud “of her ancestors, who showed hospitality to the Europeans as an explanation for why she celebrates Thanksgiving. Jackson explain[ed] that when the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, they all might have died if not for Native Americans, who taught them how to grow food. The pilgrims weren't the first Europeans to reach the Americas, so the Native Americans must have already been wary of them. They could have let the pilgrims die, but they didn't because it wasn't their way” (Brooks).
This Thanksgiving, no matter your stance on formally celebrating the holiday, take some time to consider the real implications of the colonization of America and the roots of Thanksgiving. You can even visit https://www.whose.land/en/ to see whose land you’re on (here at Trains and Toy Soldiers in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’re on Pawnee land). May your Thanksgiving be full of gratitude, education, reflection, and, if you’re partaking, the most delicious and bounteous food you can dream of.
References and Further Reading:
Brook, D. Celebrating Genocide! CounterPunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/2002/11/26/celebrating-genocide/
Brooks, C. Thanks, or no Thanksgiving. American River Current. https://web.archive.org/web/20110707133425/http://www.americanrivercurrent.com/2.7848/thanks-or-no-thanksgiving-1.1107614?pagereq=2
Carter, M. Thanksgiving is a National Day of Mourning for Native Peoples in Historic Massachusetts Town. Occupy.com. http://www.occupy.com/article/thanksgiving-national-day-mourning-native-peoples-historic-massachusetts-town
Giago, Tim. A Day to Give Thanks Is Part of Native American Tradition. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-day-to-give-thanks-is-a_b_786399
McCray, A. & Ware, L. Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving. CounterPunch. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/11/26/decolonizing-the-history-of-thanksgiving/
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Tribal Nations & the United States: An Introduction. http://www.ncai.org/about-tribes
Priscilla. Christie’s Tired [sic] To Sell The Proclamation That Established Thanksgiving, Signed By George Washington. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/thanksgiving-proclamation_n_4078958
Wikipedia. Thanksgiving (United States)