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Thanksgiving Mythology

Lectionary reflections for Thanksgiving Day (C)

By Robert Two Bulls

 

Lectionary Readings for Thanksgiving Day, Year C, Nov. 25, 2004

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm 100

Philippians 4:4-9

John 6:25-35

 

Thanksgiving is the beginning of the holiday season, and preparation for it began immediately after Halloween – or, if you follow the church's calendar, after All Saints' Day on November 1st. This holiday season runs through Christmas and New Year's Day, and is a joyous time for almost everyone.

But for others the season can be a time that produces anxiety, anger, depression and sadness. These feelings can be brought on by a host of reasons. Just gathering with friends and family can produce anxiety. The worries can be compounded by long-distance travel time, delays and sitting in airports. Some folks have high expectations that this time of year will be better than the rest. Or that a broken relationship might be mended, or an estranged family member will finally come home. Sadness is brought about when we are reminded by the empty spaces left by the death of a loved one. And there are always individuals who will be alone during the holiday season.

Thanksgiving Day and the Fourth of July are very much American secular holidays, yet are listed as Major Feasts in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979). One can argue that Thanksgiving Day has religious beginnings, and I suppose there are some who can make a case for the Fourth of July as well. Thanksgiving has its roots in the harvest festivals of ancient agricultural societies, but like July 4th it has become a patriotic celebration. Perhaps this is because we are unable to make a connection to what constitutes a good harvest, especially when one realizes that fresh bounty can be shipped to us year-round and picked up easily at the local supermarket.

Every year when Thanksgiving Day approaches, I feel without fail a growing consternation inside me. I attribute this feeling to the inevitable emergence of the whitewashed historical record of this day and to the sudden attention that America directs toward the Native American Indians.

Every year when Thanksgiving Day approaches, I feel without fail a growing consternation inside me. I attribute this feeling to the inevitable emergence of the whitewashed historical record of this day and to the sudden attention that America directs toward the Native American Indians. It is an awareness that wakes up every year after Halloween and then will go back to sleep when the last scrap of turkey is devoured.

Unfortunately, the majority of the attention on this particular holiday is focused on stereotypes and a false myth. It is a story that is constantly put forth in schools and media for as long as anyone cares to remember.

It goes something like this: God had given this land to European people. They came to these shores primarily for economic reasons. And through the next few hundred years, America was born as a country and the Indian faded away. All is well. And the Pilgrims came here mainly for religious reasons. After the settling and founding of a new colony they gave thanks to God for providing a great bounty. Thanksgiving Day was made a national holiday by one of our greatest of presidents, Abe Lincoln. Today we celebrate this secular and religious holiday by giving thanks to God for our great nation and for providing all that we have.

The truth of this story is a complicated one about which much has been written. I cannot give it justice with these bare facts that I present here in this writing. But they are facts that need to be considered and remembered before we begin to celebrate this holiday.

When the Pilgrims touched Plymouth Rock in 1620 and made it to shore, they found a deserted village, which they eventually appropriated for themselves and named Plymouth Colony. The village had been named Patuxet and was the formal home of people who were a branch of the Wampanoags. The majority of these people had died from smallpox in 1618. The village was a ghost town.

The Pilgrims were helped out by Squanto (or Tisquantum), a Wampanoag and a former inhabitant of Patuxet. Squanto spoke English. He had learned this language over a period of several years, following his capture by English traders and sale into slavery in Europe. He had made it back home, a heroic nine-year journey, only to find his people pretty much wiped out.

After teaching the Pilgrims basic survival and agricultural techniques, the Wamponoags and Pilgrims kept peaceful relations for well over fifty years. Some have said that Squanto was eventually killed by the “good Puritans.”

[W]e celebrate a false mythology that plays into our notion of greatness. It is presented like a bridge that connects a mythic past of one's ancestors having nothing to present-day descendents having a superabundance of everything. The troubling aspect of this symbol is that the foundation on one side of this bridge is unstable. . .

Perhaps we as a nation need to celebrate the life of Squanto, who was the real hero of this sad story. Instead we celebrate a false mythology that plays into our notion of greatness. It is presented like a bridge that connects a mythic past of one's ancestors having nothing to present-day descendents having a superabundance of everything. The troubling aspect of this symbol is that the foundation on one side of this bridge is unstable, and I am not sure that making a connection from this myth to giving thanks today is a very good one to make. We have to remember that land in America was largely acquired dishonestly by outright theft and by breaking treaties with the first peoples of this land. American History that only considers the false myths as truth will always diminish the past and present lives of Native American Indians.

There is the other problem that arises from this mythmaking, and that is the one about a certain special relationship being established between God and America. We have to ask the question, “Did God really send the diseases to annihilate all the indigenous inhabitants and then give the land to the Europeans?” Christians have conveniently found support through the years in the passages found in the book of Deuteronomy. One example is today's reading about the Israelites being given land to occupy that was already settled by other peoples. This problem surrounding land ownership is one that we will be fighting over for years to come.

Ultimately we cannot take our riches with us when we die. The land will always be here. I suppose our descendents will keep on fighting for it, but ultimately it belongs to God. We as humans are called to be good stewards of the land, of this earth, and we are failing spectacularly at it. We Americans live in the “Land of Plenty,” but why do many of us wallow in personal debt? What can be done about the ever growing chasm that is between the few rich and countless poor? Why are we so afraid?

John's Gospel is reminding us that what we as Christians receive the gift of bread given to us by God. This story also reminds us of the manna given to the Israelites so that they were able survive in the wilderness. They were only to take what they needed and were to leave the rest. Basically God was telling them not to be greedy. The bread we receive from God gives us life. The bread from above is the word made flesh in Jesus. We are reminded that the gift of the Word to the world is the real nourishment we need everyday. So today, instead of sticking this gift in the closet, open it up, share it and be thankful for it.

 

The Rev. Robert Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota) is missioner for Native ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. He is an artist and an educator who develops inter- and cross-cultural models on Christianity and traditional spiritual practices among indigenous peoples and other communities. Robert may be reached by email at indigenous@ladiocese.org .