As children, many of us were taught an amazingly oversimplified, completely sanitized version of American history, Thanksgiving in particular. In fact, the story of the first Thanksgiving is one of the great American myths, drilled into the heads of children for so many generations that it no longer matters how terribly false it is, just as long as it instills in us some vague sense of brotherhood and unity. While I am happy to report that at least some progress is being made to correct this misconception, judging from the few elementary texts about Thanksgiving I've perused this year, there's still plenty about the holiday that requires examination.
By the time I was in high school, I had read enough about the first Thanksgiving to know that the wonderful story of the generous Pequot Indians and the starving Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a fairy tale of religious proportions. According to some historians, the first Thanksgiving was actually a celebration honoring the slaughter of 700 Pequot men, women, and children by English and Dutch forces.
Naturally, it became very important to me as a young, hot-headed, nonconformist, student-radical type to make damn sure that everyone else knew the truth, too. After all, it seemed important to let those around me in on the dirty little secret that was left out of our history books. It was impossible to discuss the colonization of America without talking about the guns, germs, and steel that devastated the egalitarian lifestyle of the original peoples of North America.
Most of the time, my rants about the English invasion of the so-called New World brought a sort of collective shrug from whomever was listening. Other times, as is the case today, I'm asked why I'm such a downer, particularly on a happy occasion like Thanksgiving, or why I'm so concerned about a history that can't be changed. I suppose the simplest answer is that I don't care very much for mythological abstractions, especially the ones that have some sort of basis in reality.
The truth is we should be absolutely honest about our nation's history, and we should never whitewash it for the masses, no matter how good it makes us feel. This type of reductive history is exactly the sort of thought control that George Orwell wrote about in 1984, and it's poisonous when it's applied to our collective American story. If we become comfortable with the myth that there was no real strife between our European and indigenous ancestors, then we become comfortable with the other myths of American history that blind us to the truth.
Most people are more comfortable either not knowing or outright denying the historical facts of the early colonial times. Some are even comfortable rationalizing what happened between the colonialists and Native Americans in ways that are often just bizarre. Rationalization, though, is not the same as being rational. After all, it was the rationalizations of the early American colonists that made them feel justified in taking away land that was clearly inhabited by another group of people. The colonists did not understand the culture they found here, so they simply declared it null and void using the ancient Roman concept of terra nullius and the Bible's call for the civilized peoples of the earth to have dominion over nonbelievers.
Today's rationalizations are no better. They focus on the worst aspects of indigenous American life — tribes regularly waged war against each other, they massacred the white settlers — and use them as some sort of justification for genocide. This is counterproductive. You might as well argue that the colonists should've lost the Revolutionary War because they used less-than-savory tactics against British Loyalists. The net effect is that we live in a nation today that's intellectually incapable of coming to terms with its history, both ancient and recent.
They say history is written by the winners, but it's more accurate to say that history is edited by them. What we now know about the colonization of America comes from the very documents that were written by the colonialists themselves; the source of the information on the Pequot Massacre is a 1637 law making Thanksgiving a holiday in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Calling this "revisionist" history is an insult, and it shouldn't deter people from re-examining their own deep-seated cultural beliefs.
In the end, what matters most about Thanksgiving is that — should you choose to celebrate it or not — you are doing it honestly. One day, I hope to give thanks that I live in a country that chooses to do that.