An interesting exchange about Thanksgiving

I just received an interesting email from a man with whom I’ve done some corresponding.  It has to do with Thanksgiving.  I thought I’d pass along his note and my response.  I’d be curious to hear how this sits with others of you.

Hello Kent,

Thank you for your response. I do realize that you have a wide correspondence from readers of your books, so I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my message.

I have been living with a question about the Thanksgiving holiday for the past 12 years that I would like to share with you. Before I come to the question I would like to share a little bit about myself as it may help you understand where I am coming from. I am an East Indian who came to the US in 2003 to attend graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s engineering school. I met my future wife in WI. She is from MN and she is the one who introduced me to your works. While I was in Madison, I had my first experience of the Thanksgiving holiday and it was a negative one. I was one of the few Indian grad students who had a car. My Indian room-mate and other Indian friends forced me to drive them at 3:30 Am on Black Friday to be at the front of the line at Best Buy so that they could get the best deals on electronic gadgets and gizmos. Standing in the line in front of Best Buy while being surrounded by people looking desperate to get in the store was a deeply negative experience for me. I vowed to not get involved in that madness again.

As time went by I tried to find out what the Thanksgiving holiday was really about. I could not find clear answers. The best answer I could find is linked below:

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/11/23/what-really-happened-first-thanksgiving-wampanoag-side-tale-and-whats-done-today-145807

How do you reconcile this holiday with the tragic history of American Indians? I find myself conflicted because one cannot completely separate the feast that the Wampanoags and the pilgrims had together and what happened to American Indians in the decades and centuries following that event. What are we really celebrating on this holiday? Given your deep knowledge and understanding of American Indian history, how do you see this holiday?

Thank you,
Himanshu

My response:

Dear Himanshu,

To be truthful, I have pretty much disassociated the Thanksgiving holiday from its origins. It is one of the few things I look at only in its contemporary context, because it is the only holiday that has remained free of the hellish commercialization that seems to be the hallmark of contemporary American culture. It has a relative purity about it that focuses on family, though the encroachment of football is putting that somewhat in jeopardy. Still, it is about families getting together and not about rampant consumerism. This creation of Black Friday is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it seems to me to be the worst of American consumerism that then lasts all the way to Christmas. I can’t see the consumer frenzy jumping over the Thanksgiving holiday to begin even earlier, so I tend the be even more appreciative of the Thanksgiving holiday as a back wall to the Christmas buying frenzy.

I know this is cynical, but that’s how I feel: it’s a holiday about the appreciation of family, and, as such, I honor its integrity. Also, there is a turning of consciousness in America about the Native experience. By having a holiday that has its origins in the Native experience means that there can be a turning of awareness about the significance of the holiday over a period of time. So, with patience, this holiday can, perhaps, be one small way of building an awareness of a part of our national history that is otherwise ignored or forgotten. It’s at least a hope.

America is a young country and a naive country with a good heart but too much bluster and self-congratulation. I do my part to move us in a more humble and aware direction, as do you. It’s about the best we can do.

Thanks for writing.

Kent

What think you out there?

 

12 comments

  1. Shelley says:

    I am friends with a Native American woman who is very bitter about the celebration of Thanksgiving also, BUT with that said, her whole family gets together on Thanksgiving day ! She told me they did ‘not’ celebrate Thanksgiving… but I came to realize, just as you are saying Mr. Nerburn, that they are just celebrating ‘family’…as I think that is also what Thanksgiving means to all of us out here.
    Just a celebration of family…and of course a guilt-free day of eating too much good stuff ! Luckily, I do think more people are starting to understand what really took place with the Native Americans, but until our lawmakers ‘get it’, I’m afraid nothing is going to change in this country. Not only do I have Native American ancestry, but I also have Acadian ancestry… my ancestors were kicked out of Nova Scotia and down to the bayous so it is sort of a double whammy. I look back at my ancestors and just cannot believe the hardships they went through. Yes, for now, I agree with you, that most of us consider it just a day to celebrate ‘family’…..

  2. Greetings Kent, what an interesting point of view from some one totally disconnected and uninfluenced by one of the U.S. holidays that in my opinion was not taught right in my gradeschool days. That would be in the 40’s. I get frustrated at my white friends and the white parts of my family who don’t want to hear any truths about Thanksgiving that they themselves have grown up with.

    As for myself and my nuclear family we give Thanks EVERY day, we share what we can all through the year with those who need. As a family who enjoys their meals, the traditional turkey, pumpkin, and etc are something we look forward to on that day. There is nothing keeping us from eating this meal any other time.

    My dad passed away 3 years ago and to help my 93 year old mom not to dwell in grief that first Thanksgiving he was gone, we took her out to a Chinese buffet, the only eating joint open in town that
    was open that day. We all loved it so much we now have a new Thanksgiving dinner tradition and we have Chinese food every year now, still giving thanks everyday, still helping and feeding others through the year as possible and loving our Chinese Thanksgiving dinner.

    We believe that traditions are what you make of them and if you learn you have been taught wrong about a tradtion in history, try to educate others. If they won’t hear, it is their own problem. Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday but some we know treat it that way. Native peoples don’t need legislation to tell them to give thanks on a certain day, it is a part of life every day.

    My husband is Cherokee/Lumbee, I am Cherokee/white

  3. Barb says:

    As always, Kent, perfectly said. Thank you.

  4. Eileen Jerome Grundstrom says:

    Indian Country Today said it best. The native experience is best told by native people.

  5. Linda Vogel says:

    Himanshu and Kent,
    Thank you for your insights into this American holiday. Black Friday is a travesty–fostering consumeism, greed and the illusion that we need more and more stuff. For me, thanksgiving is very much about family and close friends who become family. It is also about giving thanks for the gift of life and family. Breaking bread together, sharing stories, and remembering those no longer with us is an important part of Thanksgiving day. Our family is now far flung (from South Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa and California) so we have created “family” where we are and create traditions of our own. For me, thanksgiving is also a sober time of remembering the violence done to our Native American brothers and sisters and seeking to right those wrongs in whatever small ways I can and to be diligent in speaking out against our nation continuing to do violence against others.

  6. Toni Snyder says:

    Consumerism and spectator sports have become the “religion” of our country/culture. The meaning of any national holiday an/or religious holiday is now strictly a consumer day. Thanksgiving still remains focused on familiy for most of us but Black Friday moved up to the day before Thanksgiiving. I agree with you thoughts – thank you.

  7. Warren says:

    As one views the history of Thanksgiving, it has roots that are political. If one can overlook its origins and focus on its purpose, the Creator will be pleased by our appreciation for His blessings. Take a minute to smile on His goodness. Happiness can only be experienced in the present.

  8. Himanshu Tiwari says:

    Dear Kent,

    I am pleasantly surprised that you posted our email exchange on your blog! Thank you for your insights about the Thanksgiving holiday in its contemporary context. I would also like to thank the commenters for their feedback.

    It is easy to blame our lawmakers and leaders for many of the ills in the country, both past and present. But as MK Gandhi said “Our leaders are an exaggerated edition of what we are in the aggregate.” The great American comedian George Carlin has said essentially the same thing in one of his stand-up comedy shows: “Where do you think our leaders come from? Mars?” In other words the macrcosm and microcosm are intimately related. I do hope that there is a turning of consciousness with regard to the Native experience in America. But based on my experience talking to people in the dominant culture (white and non-white), I do not feel very optimistic. There are very few shining lights such as yourself and the frequent commenters on this blog.

    My pessimism about any major positive changes in American culture is informed by everyday experience, the works of Joe Bageant (Deer hunting with Jesus – Dispatches from America’s class war, Rainbow Pie- A Redneck Memoir), Dr. Morris Berman (Twilight of American Culture, Dark ages America, and Why America failed), and yourself. I highly recommend the works of Joe Bageant and Morris Berman to your readers.

    Thank you,
    Himanshu

  9. Shawn says:

    I’m sorry to be so late to comment (the blog didn’t arrive via email as usual, so, realizing this, I had to pull it up myself. Such stress!

    It seems I was taught a story that I promptly forgot, as I have only a vague picture of the “first thanksgiving” that I was taught in grade school—which I eventually learned to discount as just another “white-washed” piece of history. But, and this is a big but, Thanksgiving is everyone in my family’s favorite holiday. The younger generations (past early grade school) prize it over the gifting at Christmas. I think this is because Thanksgiving does not ask anything of us but camaraderie—and we do want to love and be loved.

    I can’t help but compare the reality of the Thanksgiving story with the reality of the Christmas story. In the former, we made up a tale that glosses over the actuality of our theft of a whole country from its people and our subsequent cruelty towards the vanquished; we prettied up the tale to convince ourselves that God is smiling down upon us and blessing us with abundant tables.

    In the latter, we created a myth that allows us to become gluttons of materialism by corrupting the significance of three signature gifts bestowed upon a baby god—who turned out to be a very humble man who would be aghast if he were to walk among us during the eponymous Christmas season.

    However, Thanksgiving does offer us opportunities to reach out and share our bounty with those on the margins of life. And Christmas does offer us opportunities to bring joy into the lives of those same marginalized fellow earthlings. So perhaps this is all about the ball being in our court. It’s not about where the ball came from, it’s what we do with it that counts.

  10. Peggy says:

    Thank God for our liberties and a country founded on freedom…which on the most basic level means that I have a choice to have or not have a God of my understanding, I can choose when, how and where to worship, and which if any holidays to observe. I also have the freedom to work for a living, be self supporting, and choose how and when I spend my leisure time. I can also choose when I shop and what I buy…the freedom of choice. I also have the choice to turn off the tv, the computer and tune out the ads, the marketing, as well as the political and government perpetuated propaganda as I wish. I am free and live free and for that I am eternally grateful and humbled. I engage in thanks-giving and gratitude-giving each and every day!

  11. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

  12. knerburn says:

    Way above my paygrade. I don’t even know how to forward your comment to the webmaster. Could you send a copy of your problem and request to kelli@kincaid-burrows.com? She is the only one with the capability of addressing this. My apologies. I hope we can get this fixed.

    Best,

    Kent

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