SUMMARY: Most Americans have learned about Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims at the center of the story. A story about a people fleeing religious persecution and landing on the shore of a wild, uncivilized country where they are befriended and saved by kind natives. They celebrate Thanksgiving and live happily ever after. It is a deeply ingrained origin story about the beginning of the United States. Not surprisingly, much of the Thanksgiving story is a myth.
Yes, there was a feast of thanksgiving between the Wampanogs and the English settlers, but no the Wampanogs were not invited. Yes, there was food such as deer, corn, fowl, and seafood, but there was probably no turkey. No, this was not a recurring yearly event. No, the Wampanog and English relationship did not stay intact. In This Land is Their Land, David Silverman details the political and cultural situation of the the Wampanog tribe before the English colonists arrived in November of 1620. He then pivots to the relationship between the Wampanogs and the English colonists leading up the mythical Thanksgiving feast and their relationship afterward.
“Rather than treat the Wampanoags as lifelike figures struggling with a historic decision,” Silverman writes. “the myth reduces them to an unthreatening caricature, the better to have them hand off America to the English and then get out of the way.”
“Serious, critical history tends to be hard on the living. It challenges us to see distortions embedded in the heroic national origin myths we have been taught since childhood. It takes enemies demonized by previous generations and treats them as worthy of understanding in their particular contexts. Ideological absolutes—civility and savagery, liberty and tyranny, and especially us and them—begin to blur. People from our own society who are not supposed to matter, and whose historical experiences show how the injustices of the past have shaped the injustices of the present, move from the shadows into the light. Because critical history challenges assumptions and authority, it often leaves us feeling uncomfortable. Yet it also has the capacity to help us become more humble and humane. “David Silverman, This Land is Their Land
That call to be critical, honest, humble and humane should resonate with Christians. Like many historical accounts, this story isn’t being told to shame, but to educate — an attempt to balance the narrative or at least give a voice to the Wampanog side of the story.
“If the Wampanoags are as much our fellow Americans as the descendants of the Pilgrims, and if their history can be as instructional and inspirational as that of the English,” Silverman pens, “then why continue to tell a Thanksgiving myth that focuses exclusively on the colonists’ struggles rather than theirs?”
From a Christian perspective, the chapter that stood out was the final chapter where Silverman describes the ways people used the Christian faith as an excuse to dehumanize and enslave Wampanog. Not surprisingly, this parallels the way many white Christians treated black people (read The Color of Compromise for more). It is another sordid historical church fact that needs to be brought to light and grappled with.
While we do recommend this book, know that it is aimed at those that are already interested in the subject. At 500 plus pages, it could potentially feel like a slog.
So, what can we do about Thanksgiving? For starters, according to Wampanog today, we need to tell the real story and not elevate the Pilgrims as the heroes bringing structure, society, and civilization to North America.
“If how we tell history is one of the ways we shape our present and future, we can do no better than to rethink the myth of the First Thanksgiving and its role in the Thanksgiving holiday,” Silverman concludes.
KEY QUOTE: “If the Wampanoags are as much our fellow Americans as the descendants of the Pilgrims, and if their history can be as instructional and inspirational as that of the English, then why continue to tell a Thanksgiving myth that focuses exclusively on the colonists’ struggles rather than theirs?”
BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book? Watch or listen to Silverman on Revolutionary Spaces where he describes what prompted him to write the book while going over the highlights in This Land is Their Land.
DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Goodreads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
DIG IN: We have a learning capsule about Thanksgiving with resources to help faithfully learn about the holiday.
Our latest curated content on Thanksgiving :
From rejecting Thanksgiving to holding multiple narratives at the same time to embracing myths this wide ranging panel on Thanksgiving is worth the hour as each person on the panel has a different perspective on Thanksgiving day.Read more
Did you know that the Pilgrims had a fondness for colorful clothing and not the stereotypical plain, black wardrobe that is normally depicted? Did you know that religious freedom was not the primary motivation for the Pilgrims to cross the Atlantic? Our favorite Thanksgiving historian Robert Tracy McKenzie debunks five myths that are commonly associated with the Pilgrims.Read more