Thursday, November 24, 2011

A timeout to talk turkey

HISTORY IS such a killjoy. Always insisting on going all reality-check on us, it can't leave well enough alone. So it is with Thanksgiving. No, America's first Thanksgiving wasn't held by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1621. In fact, the first celebrations of a bountiful harvest or good fortune occurred in Florida (near present-day Jacksonville) by French and Spanish Pilgrims as early as 1564, some 57 years before the Mayflower crowd broke bread with the Wampanoag. And that's just the European side of the coin. According to Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota and publisher of the Native Sun News, Native Americans had a strong tradition of "giving thanks" (or "wopila," as the Plains Indians called it) and did so regularly for centuries before the pale faces showed up. In effect, the first Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving were the First Americans. In all cases, nobody contemplated making wopila or its European variants an annual holiday. Nor did they call the occasions "Thanksgiving" -- that's a relatively modern invention like most aspects of the holiday. The early celebrants feasted on whatever was available. The Spanish shared bean soup with the Timucua Indians. Back at Plymouth, the Pilgrims (the 53 of 102 who were still alive) dined on wild fowl (along with venison) during their 1621 feast. History is silent on whether their meal included turkey. And lest we forget, those first joint meals with the Indians did not foster better relations between colonizer and colonized despite Plymouthian myths to the contrary. We know how this movie ended thanks to history's unavoidable "spoiler alert" (i.e., conquest and genocide). Although this cultural amnesia is unfortunate as we blissfully gorge ourselves on turkey, Professor Daniel Brook of UC Berkeley observed that "We do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something." He's right. So with the complexity of history in mind on this Thanksgiving day, it is especially important to heed what John F. Kennedy once said: "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

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