A few years ago, when I wrote a series of posts arguing that Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is racist, one of my readers asked, but how about Thanksgiving? Isn’t that racist as well?
I was planning to write my post about it as close to Thanksgiving as possible, but the problem with that is that the closer to Thanksgiving, the busier I am with, well, Thanksgiving. But I’m determined to do it this year. And you’ve got to hand it to me, it couldn’t get any closer than this!
Because today is Thanksgiving in America. It’s a national holiday; folks travel all over the country to gather with their families to have a feast with certain types of food. The idea was originally to remember the first thanksgiving feast of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.
If they landed on Plymouth Rock. And only 35 of the 102 passengers were pilgrims. But you’d never know that if you watch the first video that pops up if you google Thanksgiving.
But I digress. And I have to admit that the following relies heavily on Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me, because I don’t have time to thoroughly research all this myself right now. I will try to later on and in that case, if I find discrepancies, I will make changes, but I can’t promise when that will be. Like I said, Thanksgiving is a difficult time to write a post like this.
Anyway, Loewen points out that to begin with, the folks on the Mayflower weren’t the first settlers in the “New World”. Sure, most people know by now that the Vikings found it almost a thousand years earlier, and the French, Mexicans and Spanish had all established towns before. But Loewen points out that the word “settlers” itself is deceptive, since the continent was already settled.
He states that the numbers vary, but that there were tens of millions to hundreds of millions of native Americans before the white man arrived. Having no immunity to extracontinental diseases, they succumbed in large numbers to smallpox, plague, flu, etc. A year before the Mayflower dropped anchor, a plague had again decimated the native population of the area, a plague introduced by French fur traders, most likely.
So when the Mayflower folks landed, they found villages and fields, deserted, with skeletons lying around all over the place because in the end there hadn’t been enough healthy people left to dig the graves. King James wrote that he gave thanks “to Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us” for sending “this wonderful plague amongst the savages” (LMTTM p. 80).
The Mayflower settlers also found this most convenient. They landed during the winter and they stayed on the Mayflower until the next spring. They lived off food they scavenged from the deserted villages and from graves. Yes, they were grave robbers. Nevertheless, many of the colonists died of disease and starvation during that winter.
When spring arrived, the remaining colonists had it relatively easy. Hardly any natives to fight off and the land was already cleared and corn fields were established. The Wampanaugs, having been decimated and fearing the larger Narragansetts tribe to the west, decided to help the Mayflower folks get settled, hoping they would be of use keeping the Narragansetts at bay (LMTTM p. 76).
That autumn the colonists had their first thanksgiving feast, together with their native allies in the area.
There were other thanksgiving feasts, like one in the Virginia colony, where the surrounding Natives were invited and promptly poisoned to death. Even American textbooks would have a hard time glossing that over. Later, Thanksgiving was celebrated in various states at various times, until Lincoln made it a national holiday on the last Thursday of November, as part of his attempt to create some unity before the Civil War.
The Thanksgiving narrative that everyone is told from a very young age suggests that the colonists of the Mayflower were all Pilgrims rather than a majority people who just came over in the hopes of making more money than they could in England. The story also suggest that these colonists were the first settlers in what is now the United States, and that the Native Americans were these forest-dwelling hunters with no concept of land ownership who just happened to know how to grow corn, instead of the well-established farmers and fishermen and hunter-gatherers they actually were. It’s suggested that the Wampanaug helped the “settlers” out of the kindness of their hearts instead of not having any choice after their numbers had been reduced by about 95% from exposure to diseases.
The colonists and the Native Americans of the area lived in relative peace for a few years, and when conflict over land did occur in 1631, Increase Mather, a Puritan minister, wrote that “God ended the controversy by sending the small pox amongst the Indians” (LMTTM p. 76). Kids are told that the Native Americans had no concept of land ownership, but villages definitely felt that the land they inhabited and used was theirs.
A (later) part of the Plymouth Rock story is that the Native Americans converted to Christianity in enthusiastic droves. Loewen points out that the Native Americans were dying in vast pandemics of diseases introduced by the Europeans, and that they felt their gods weren’t helping. The God of the white people was clearly more powerful because the whites didn’t die of the same diseases. The native Americans must also have felt extremely discouraged by the events and many became fatalistic–just as many folks did during the plagues in Europe–and just gave in.
All in all, it’s a pretty awful story.
Nowadays more people are sensitive to the Native American side of the experience, but even more thoughtful teachers still tiptoe around the issues, and Scholastic’s lesson plan about the Wampanaug for middle school grades mentions nothing about the state in which the colonists found their area.
I’ve been in lots of stores this year, looking for Thanksgiving decorations, and I have to say, I didn’t come across one stereotypical little Indian boy figurine like I expected to. In fact, I didn’t see any figurines of Pilgrims or Native Americans. Just lots of wreaths and bunches of fake autumn leaves and flowers and such.
We celebrate Thanksgiving the way most people I know do: we get together with family and friends and have an elaborate meal that includes foods that are originally American: corn, corn bread, corn pudding, turkey, pumpkin, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, pecans, pecan pie, etc. I personally don’t celebrate Thanksgiving as a day to be thankful that I live in America, but I do think it’s fun to create a meal with these ingredients once a year.
So, is it the same as the Dutch celebrating Sinterklaas with Zwarte Piet? No. Thanksgiving has a much darker history that affected and still affects Native Americans. Thanks to the arrival of Europeans, their numbers went from who knows how many millions to a few hundred thousand in about two centuries. The Mayflower colonists benefited from the pandemics, which allowed them to take over the continent with relative ease.
That being said, I know nobody personally who still celebrates Thanksgiving as the day to remember the Pilgrims arriving in the new world. It’s just a day to get together with family in a country so huge that you often only see one another once or twice a year. Nobody I know does anything stereotypical or distasteful or insulting toward Native Americans. Of course, many Native Americans will probably say that celebrating Thanksgiving at all is being insensitive, however you change the change the day from its original purpose. I can’t argue with that, other than to say that I think holidays can evolve, and Thanksgiving is one example, at least among a sizable part of the population.
Zwarte Piet–basically blackface–is clearly racist and offensive, although it was started at a time when people were not aware of that. But now everyone is aware of it and it’s easy to change Zwarte Piet into Whatever-color Piet, and not to do that is being purposely racist, in my opinion.
I find that it’s almost impossible to compare the two holidays, other than to say that each has racist or at least cultural insensitivity issues, but Thanksgiving seems to be evolving into something less offensive a lot faster than Sinterklaas is. Which is pretty surprising.
So, Marie Jacqueline, Here it is, finally. A little–or a lot–disjointed, but it’s the best I can do in between doing groceries on the craziest grocery day of the year and preparing stuffing and other things I can do in advance for the meal. Have a colorful Sinterklaas. And for my American readers who celebrate it: happy Thanksgiving.
I wrote a blog about zwarte piet a few years ago as well and might do a re-do on it soon. Thanks for the inspiration and a happy thanksgiving!