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A day to remember

Mark Tooley | Let’s celebrate the 400th anniversary of the “First Thanksgiving”

Pilgrim re-enactors await visitors at a living history exhibit in Plymouth, Mass. Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman

A day to remember
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This year will be the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Mass., but there’s little national conversation about it. Is Thanksgiving now an embarrassment?

The Washington Post published a recent article headlined: “This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.”

What follows is a long, mournful reflection on how disastrous the first Thanksgiving was for the Wampanoag Nation, descendants of the original tribe who greeted the Pilgrims and joined the English for that momentous meal.

The Post reports: “Long marginalized and misrepresented in the American story, the Wampanoags are braced for what’s coming this month as the country marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and Indians.”

A tribal activist complains: “For us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization. Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude, and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.” A tribal historian told The Post: “Thanksgiving portrays an idea of us seeming like idiots who welcomed all of these changes and supports the idea that Pilgrims brought us a better life because they were superior.”

The Post quotes several aggrieved Mashpee Wampanoags, a subset of the original tribe, for whom a federal reservation in Massachusetts was created in 2015. Total descendants of the original tribe likely number many tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans, most of whom are likely unaware of their ancestry. Most probably celebrate Thanksgiving robustly.

It goes without saying that misdeeds in American history should be recorded, but Thanksgiving was not among those misdeeds. The first Thanksgiving seems to have included genuine comity and good will. So why not celebration instead of disdain? Such moments are too rare among conflict-prone humanity. And amid today’s American polarization, such commemorations, now derided as historical “myths,” are needed more than ever.

The Post article, among others, stresses subsequent tragedies afflicting the Wampanoag and other natives of New England. We should know these stories, but such conflicts are endemic to fallen humanity. The Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims as potential allies against other tribes. Pre-Pilgrim New England was not Edenic; like most of the earth, it was a constant battleground for contending war-prone nations. What tribe did the Wampanoag conquer and eradicate before the English arrived? The Post article doesn’t mention it. The Wampanoag, like all peoples, have their own “myths” about their own virtue and victimhood.

Thanksgiving honors Pilgrims and natives who, at least initially, helped each other and lived in relative peace. Don’t such moments of grace merit commemoration, and aren’t both sides honored by such commemoration? Christians know all humanity is by nature depraved and that God is always redeeming.

Those who scorn Thanksgiving assume that European Christians were uniquely evil while natives were uniquely innocent. But they were equals in their humanity—for good and bad. Did the Wampanoag err in helping the Pilgrims? If so, their error ultimately contributed to building a great nation unique in world history, one whose constitutional structure sought to treat all humans as equal (even if it took too long to see that goal achieved). This in turn has blessed hundreds of millions globally, including tribal descendants.

Thanksgiving not only recalls a feast of goodwill—it recalls a persecuted people who escaped on a dangerous transatlantic journey, half of them dying their first winter in the new land. Yet, they gave thanks and entertained native visitors who helped them. They praised God despite terrible losses. The Wampanoag were also survivors, having endured a great plague transmitted by earlier European contact.

Wampanoag activists suggested to The Post that their ancestors should have let the Pilgrims starve. Their ancestors were wiser, for which we thank God.

The first Thanksgiving teaches us more than we know. We live in an age in which gratitude is often absent from public conversation. Public voices prefer victimhood and complaint about present circumstances or sins from centuries ago, which history should undoubtedly teach. Resentments, seemingly, should endure across generations, like ancient blood feuds. But Christianity teaches a different way. Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political philosopher and Holocaust survivor, thought Christianity’s greatest gift was forgiveness, which “serves to undo the deeds of the past.”

Thanksgiving is about grace, gratitude, harmony, and even forgiveness. Its feast is a faint foreshadowing of the heavenly feast to come, to which all the forgiven are invited. So, celebrate Thanksgiving, and give thanks to God.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.


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