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30.11.03

Myth And History At Thanksgiving

Since I didn't have much internet access over the holiday weekend, you're getting a late Thanksgiving post.

Celebrating Genocide!

There are many reasons to celebrate and Americans have a lot to be thankful for. Genocide should not be one of those things. What are we doing on Thanksgiving Day? We would be appropriately appalled if Germany or Austria were celebrating a Holocaust Memorial Day, where Germans and Austrians got together with their families for dinner on their official day off, joyously remembering the things that are important to them, just as American families get together for Thanksgiving Day and think of things to be thankful for. (Similar scenarios, just as ugly, could be constructed for white supremacists, rapists, and murderers.) Some activities and events are inappropriate just because of the context in which they occur and the history of suffering they represent. Thanksgiving Day is clearly part of that history. Are Americans thankful for forgetting their own history, for having collective cultural and political amnesia?


Every Thanksgiving sees a number of articles of this type, reminding us that, contraray to the rosy picture of the First Thanksgiving, our nation has treated its indigenous people quite poorly. I've even taken a stab at the genre. This is an important part of our history, and something that we too often overlook. Nevertheless, I think these stories are no reason to discard the traditional Thanksgiving story.

We need to understand the distinction between myth and history. We tend to think of myth as being simply bad history, a version skewed by falsehoods that should be thrown out or corrected as soon as possible. From an anthropological standpoint, that's not quite right. While a myth shares the narrative form of a history, its function is not to relate the events of the past in a straightforward manner. Its function is to express the values of the culture that tells it. Myth evokes what the Dreaming, a quasi-past in which the order of the world is set in place, a period that contrasts to the messiness and failings of the present world.

I think the traditional Thanksgiving story expresses certain admirable ideals. On the one hand, it's a story about relations between races or cultures. The Pilgrims and Indians come together in fellowship, sharing the best of their respective cultures without losing their own identities. On the other hand, it's a story about immigration, about how America (represented here by the Indians) welcomes those who are persecuted in other places. The fact that what actually happened was genocide does not mean that the myth glorifies genocide, or that positive feelings toward the myth translate into approval for the real events that the myth (inaccurately) represents.

The "real story of Thanksgiving" histories play off of, and affirm, the ideals in the traditional myth. They point out that we haven't lived up to the morals encoded in the traditional Thanksgiving myth. It's important to know that, but not at the expense of having a positive statement of our ideals.

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