COMMENTARY: Revisionist, historical Thanksgiving: both overdrawn and exaggerated

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ Poor Thanksgiving. Even this beloved and most American of holidays is currently a battleground between”politically correct”historical revisionists, who perceive the Pilgrims as villains, and traditionalist historians, who extol the settler community that was led by Gov. John Winthrop.

While almost every American knows the fabled story of the Plymouth colony’s first Thanksgiving in 1621, the revised,”true”version goes something like this:

The 102 English Pilgrims who sailed from Holland in 1620 on the Mayflower allegedly in search of religious freedom actually came to these shores for a much less exalted reason: to advance the cause of a cruel European imperialism.

A basic feature of that imperialism was the crass exploitation of technologically inferior natives who were forced to produce raw materials for shipment to the mother country, which then converted those materials into finished goods to be sold on the world market for huge profits.

With this clever arrangement, no wonder Britannia ruled. To the poor subjugated Indians of Massachusetts, little or no wages; to the London merchant class, extraordinary wealth and power; and to the Pilgrim middlemen, a smug sense of moral superiority.

To guarantee a cheap source of labor, the Pilgrims in 1621 entered into a fraudulent treaty of cooperation with their neighbors, the Wampanoag Indians. Massaoit, the Indian leader, was lured into this trap following a festive community celebration the Pilgrims called”Thanksgiving.” According to the historical revisionists, the treaty provided a deceitful cover that hid the Pilgrims’ rapacity.

Thanksgiving _ with its traditional turkeys, cranberries, and pumpkins _ was carefully disguised as a feast of thankfulness to God for a good bounty that came only a year after the Pilgrims left Holland, the revisionists say. But the Pilgrims actually offered thanks for something else: They would soon become a wealthy outpost of London-based imperial greed. Along with that affluence came an ugly religious intolerance that permeated the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was a bias that did not welcome Jews, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Baptists.

And when one of the latter group, Roger Williams, sought to alter the colonists homogeneous religious society, he was physically banished and sought safe haven in the neighboring colony of Rhode Island. So much for religious pluralism in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But the revisionist account of Pilgrim avarice, as well as the traditional Thanksgiving story we all learned in elementary school, are both overdrawn and exaggerated. What is clearly needed, however, is a radical reassessment of the entire colonial period and especially the colonists’ ill-treatment of American Indians.

Many Americans have been systematically poisoned by a pervasive anti-Indian prejudice that has infected schools and the media (“the only good Indian is a …”), military terminology (Tomahawk missiles), and negative expressions embedded in popular culture (sports logos).

Indeed, I still remember some highway signs in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims’ home area, that featured an Indian arrow piercing the distinctive Pilgrim hat. Happily, the arrow has been removed from the signs, but not before a highly negative image had left its mark.

Critics rightly charge that the conquering American colonists nearly destroyed this continent’s large Indian population, and that those same colonists and their descendants had the arrogance to memorialize their victims by bestowing Indian names upon states, rivers, and sports teams. It is a case of first maim and then name.

But however worthy the search for historical truth and fairness, we should not trash or minimize the authentic Thanksgiving story. In a supposedly secular nation like the United States, Thanksgiving has acquired the qualities of a national religious festival, but one fortunately devoid of specific denominational ritual or meaning.

And the Pilgrims, though their faults be many, knew the Hebrew Bible well. When they searched for a model for their feast of thankfulness, they chose the ancient Jewish autumn harvest festival of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles.

During Sukkot, Jews erect frail huts that are decorated with nature’s rich bounty. They recite prayers of gratitude for the harvest and for the life-giving rhythm of the agricultural seasons.

So let the scholars vigorously debate whether the Pilgrims truly desired peaceful co-existence with the Indians or whether they were the forerunners of a lethal anti-Indian bigotry.

Instead, let us be like the Jews of the biblical period and the 17th-century Pilgrims: Both clearly understood that all we have in life and all that we are comes from a power higher than ourselves.


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