Giving thanks, with full understanding

Thanksgiving has long been overlaid with a certain level of mythology, especially concerning the relationship between European colonists and Native peoples

BRATTLEBORO — We in the United States have seen a long, tragic pandemic, we have just come through an election season, and in the past few years we have seen a reawakening of racial justice activism.

What, in this challenging age, can we Americans preserve from our traditional Thanksgiving traditions, and what can/should we learn from new data around us - not only for our own spiritual growth, perhaps, but also for the common good?

As many of us have come to learn, the history of our beloved country is fraught with wrongdoings. If our own ancestors are white and can be traced for several centuries in this land, we have reaped the benefits of the enslavement of Africans and the labor of their descendants; tragically, we have also reaped the benefits of the exploitation and genocide of millions of Native Americans, most especially by taking their land and making it our own.

While we need not feel personally guilty about atrocities committed by people who died generations ago, we must take responsibility for the current situation, especially the situation in which people of color still find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in our society in many ways.

Taking responsibility, especially if we are white, includes constantly educating ourselves about aspects of our national past, blemishes and all. If we were to enjoy true racial equality in this country, we white people would not be so advantaged in so many ways.

Even if we as white people are not doing particularly well, that is not due to our skin color; in contrast, people of color are routinely disadvantaged because of their skin color, and this is the essence of white privilege.

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Our holiday of Thanksgiving has long been overlaid with a certain level of mythology, especially concerning the relationship between European colonists and Native peoples. So in this season of giving thanks, let us make concerted efforts to learn from the ancient wisdom of our Native neighbors and from recent scholarly findings.

In a November 2019 article in Smithsonian Magazine, author Claire Bugos discusses David Silverman's book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving; she also interviewed Silverman.

Silverman points out that the myth we have been handed, in part, is that friendly Indians not only helped the Europeans who came to this land but also conceded to colonialism so that whites could “create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit.”

The Wampanoags in the New World had contact with Europeans for a whole century prior to the landing of the Mayflower - and that century was bloody and violent.

When the “Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the English at Plymouth [wanting] an alliance with them,” it was not out of friendship, as the myth maintains, but because “his people [had] been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin [saw] the English as an opportunity to fend off his tribal rebels.”

Silverman adds, “The Thanksgiving myth doesn't address the deterioration of this relationship culminating in one of the most horrific colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip's War, and also doesn't address Wampanoag survival and adaptation over the centuries, which is why they're still here, despite the odds.”

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We in the U.S. continue to have a great deal to learn about our real history with all its triumphs and warts.

Let us humbly learn from our past mistakes.

Let us actively seek to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Let us never forget the suffering and sacrifices of people who had no choice in the arc of their lives but who nevertheless persevered, survived, and passed down to us great wisdom and gifts.

Let us give humble and hearty thanks for all of our fellow citizens who believe in the best of American culture, for it is those fellow citizens who bring much to the table in our democratic republic that remains a work in progress.

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