The Cultural Landscape of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is upon us. As we ready to join our families this holiday, it is worth taking a moment to reflect upon the meaning of the holiday. As a cultural geographer, I study how systems of cultural meaning and power structure our understanding of the places we live and their relationships to the broader world. Thus, I approach Thanksgiving critically, asking how this celebration links us to the land.

As a harvest festival, Thanksgiving has precursors and analogies in many societies, including British and Native American peoples. Such festivals reflect one of the ways that people recognized their connection to the land and its seasonal rhythms, celebrating a successful harvest. These events also often linked community celebrations to broader political and economic concerns, as harvest festivals were occasions in which people negotiated or distributed payments and reaffirmed kinship.

Indeed, the much-celebrated mythology of the holiday presents the Pilgrims of Plymouth as having held first Thanksgiving in 1621 to share their bountiful harvest with the Wampanoag allies who made it possible to survive in the new land. The actual historical details of this event are hazy, and historians debate whether the Wampanoag were actually in attendance. However, retelling the story of the first Thanksgiving serves a mythopoetic function—it helps narrate who Americans are as a people. This story situates settlers on the American continent, presenting settlers living in harmony with Native Americans with traditions unique to this land and distinct from their British forbearers.

Absent from this account are the subsequent details of this relationship. Thus, we hear nothing of the steady erosion of the Wampanoag land base as more settlers arrived, the eventual Wampanoag uprising against the settlers, or subsequent decimation of the Wampanoag and their Native American allies. Performances of the Thanksgiving story in school auditoriums across America rarely reflect on the historic fact that settlers were much better at taking Native American land than fairly distributing the bounty of the land with its original inhabitants.

Rather the Thanksgiving story is told in isolation, a mythic moment that can serve as a symbol of national unity.

In the years to follow the first Thanksgiving, the holiday was only sporadically recognized. The early presidents proclaimed days of Thanksgiving, but the federal government stopped recognizing the holiday in the early nineteenth-century. It was only in amidst the national disunity of the Civil War that Lincoln re-established the holiday as a means to reaffirm a sense of national unity. In this context, the story of the original Thanksgiving garnered new meaning, representing an ideal of people sharing a land together in spite of their differences.

While the ideal of unity built upon fair distribution of the bounty of a shared land is in tension with the historical experiences of Native Americans, it remains a noble aspiration. However, if we are to do justice to the ideal of a shared land, we must critically interrogate the legacies that we inherit. It is only through learning from the wrongs of the past that we may begin to chart a path to a new and different future that can better honor our relationships to this land and its original inhabitants.

  Dr. Tyler McCreary is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography. He studies geographies of race and indigeneity, environmental justice, and labor geographies.

The feature image is from Wikipedia.

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