By Helen Lindsay

The first Thanksgiving wasn’t what we were taught in elementary school: the image of the Pilgrims and the (Wampanoag) Indians feasting on a turkey and celebrating their friendship. It is portrayed as a picturesque banquet, a perfect celebration. But the Thanksgiving tradition is far from perfect.  In fact, a better word to describe it would be “problematic.”

The History

  • The story of the first Thanksgiving and the surrounding history are told from the white man’s perspective, providing a full story of the pilgrim’s journey and how  friendly “Indians welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them, and then disappear.”[1]  There is no discussion of the history of the Wampanoag tribe or the previous contact between the Wampanoag tribe and Europeans  — Europeans whose presence introduced infectious diseases into the tribe.  The Wampanoag chief pursued an alliance with the pilgrims, because he feared that conflict with other tribes would further harm the disease-weakened Wampanoag. This alliance however, did not end in a “happily ever after,” as the Thanksgiving fairy tale would lead us to assume. The alliance ultimately failed in 1675 when King Phillip’s war broke out between colonizers and indigenous tribes, including the Wampanoag. The feast became the story that Americans are taught to focus on, while Wampanoag tradition has been largely left out of the history books. The tribe has adapted over the past 400 years, and about 5,000 Wampanoag people continue to live in New England.
    • One way to honor indigenous Americans on this holiday is to find out whose land you are on and to learn a little bit about that Native American nation’s culture.

Cultural Appropriation

  • Thanksgiving is often celebrated with reenactments of the “original” celebration where children dress up in feather headdresses.[2] These types of costumes are sometimes worn at Thanksgiving 5Ks and bar crawls. Not only is this an inaccurate portrayal, it is also one of the forms of cultural appropriation that have become the norm for the holiday. What we now call the United States was home to many different Native American cultures, each of whom had a different form of dress and tradition. Reducing this to one stereotype does not adequately express the unique beauty of each culture. Even the tradition of a Turkey at thanksgiving is a misappropriation: the bird many Americans consume is native to Mexico and was imported to Europe by Spaniards in the 1500s and then named after the country of Turkey. Although there are Wild Turkeys in New England it is more likely the Pilgrims and Wampanoag would have eaten duck or goose.[3]
    • Purchasing from Native American Artisans provides tangible support to indigenous creators, offers a window into the traditions of unique tribal cultures, and combats cultural appropriation.

Religious Undertones

  • Early celebrations of Thanksgiving were rooted in Christian traditions. While Thanksgiving first became a US holiday during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, there was some debate about whether this holiday blurred the lines of separation between church and state.[4] Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated by people of many faiths. Other religions have their own holidays to celebrate a harvest or to give thanks to god, but these are not nationally recognized as holidays or given to everyone as a day off from work as Thanksgiving is.
    • Learning about other harvest-related holidays is one way to recognize the many faith traditions Americans practice. The Hindu festival Diwali and the Jewish holiday Shavout are both celebrated in the fall.

Pardoning a Turkey

    • John F Kennedy originated the tradition of pardoning a turkey, and George HW Bush made this tradition official. Each year the president spares one “lucky bird” is spared from being eaten.[5] Considering the problem of mass incarceration in the US, and that our justice system is based on the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” this tradition rings hollow. A bird really is innocent of any crime and therefore should not need a pardon. Perhaps a more meaningful activity would be to focus on improvements to the US justice system.
    • Instead of celebrating the pardon of an innocent bird, consider a donation to the Innocence Project, which advocates for wrongfully convicted people and uses forensic evidence to get exonerations for these individuals.

Diet Culture

  • Social media has seen a surge of anti-diet culture recently, but Thanksgiving traditions reinforce diet culture in many ways. Across the country many road races are held on Thanksgiving morning, often dubbed a “Turkey Day 5k” and touted as a way to work off the calories you will be eating later. Feasting to excess ensues in the afternoon. This can be triggering to individuals with eating disorders, but also for many people even without eating disorders can lead to feelings of guilt and to the post-thanksgiving detoxes pushed by the diet industry. While I love Thanksgiving 5Ks because i enjoy running (and after my first one in Minnesota when it was 0F and snowing, I am always grateful that the weather is better), I could do without the “work off that turkey” quips surrounding the race.
    • Be grateful for your body and all it does for you.  Instead of a “Turkey Day 5K” this year, try a “Thankful 4” – do something that reminds you of everything your body does for you.  Maybe that’s running 4 miles, or doing 4 yoga poses, or writing down 4 things you love about yourself – be creative!

Overall, whether you are vegan or not there are many layers to the Thanksgiving traditions we celebrate each year. I highly recommend trying a vegan alternative to eating turkey, especially this year when we are already encouraged to celebrate in non-traditional ways. There are many opportunities to explore the true history of Thanksgiving, to think critically about traditions, and to create new ways of celebrating that are enjoyable to you and that honor the rich culture of our country.

[1]  Smithsonian Magazine
[2]  Smithsonian Magazine
[3]  Merriam Webster
[4]  World Religion News
[5]  Constitution Center

Helen Lindsay is a Minnesota native turned Bostonian. After graduating from Boston University in 2018 she has been working as an engineer for the past two years. She was vegetarian for 14 years before transitioning to veganism 4 years ago. In her free time, she enjoys trying new recipes, home workouts, watching documentaries, and, in non-pandemic times, traveling. You can follow her on Instagram @plantbasedengineers.

Share on email
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on facebook

Read more

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend