In elementary school I remember making a pilgrim hat or feathered Indian headdress for Thanksgiving. I vividly remember coloring a picture of a turkey. This was an annual ritual during my primary years as we approached Thanksgiving.
In addition to the coloring assignments, we also listened to the story of how the brave pilgrims, in search of religious freedom in the new world, set sail on the Mayflower. Once they arrived on the shores of America, they quickly got to work to find a suitable place to live and build a home, calling it Plymouth. They barely survived the harsh winter.
Then lo’ and behold, some friendly Indians appeared.
The pilgrims and Indians became fast friends, besties even. Not only did the Indians, who were initially thought to be savages, turn out to be friendly, they taught the pilgrims how to farm in the new land. (I’m sacrastically emphasizing the friendliness of the Indians here. It’s just assumed the pilgrims were friendly.) When harvest time came, the pilgrims and Indians celebrated with a big feast in 1621.
Now, that’s the version of events taught in textbooks and passed down for generations. While I know we say Native Americans today, that’s not what was taught in textbooks and library books about Thanksgiving at the time.
While many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m going to venture to say the story of the pilgrims isn’t at the heart of the celebration. Many use the holiday as a chance to feast with family and friends. The pilgrims and Native Americans probably didn’t eat the foods we eat today. There may have been fowl, but it likely wasn’t turkey, and while there may have been pumpkin or squash, it wasn’t pie. Cranberry sauce? Forget about it. Sweet potato pie or mashed potatoes? Nope, potatoes didn’t exist here yet.
Why am I revisiting this fable about the first Thanksgiving?
Well, because Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, was so offended by an article in the New York Times where writer Brett Anderson called the first Thanksgiving a “myth” and a “caricature” that he wrote an opinion piece and spoke about the “revisionist history” on the Senate floor. Yes, Cotton was big mad.
Let’s dissect this revisionist history, shall we?
I’ve already established that many of the foods we eat for Thanksgiving weren’t at the original meal. It’s also very likely seafood was at the meal. It makes sense if you put your thinking cap on since seafood would’ve been in abundance in New England.
You may be surprised to learn that the pilgrims and Native Americans didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving annually. In 1789, President George Washington announced the first Thanksgiving holiday would be Thursday, Nov. 26, but it still wasn’t celebrated nationwide until the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Sara Josepha Hale, went on a 30-year campaign to make it a national holiday. Hale was inspired to recreate the Thanksgiving feast after she found a diary of pilgrim life. She even published recipes for the foods we eat today. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announced the nation would celebrate Thanksgiving on the final Thursday of November.
The revisionist history of Thanksgiving happened long ago. What is happening now is a correcting of that talltale. Cotton and people like him can’t accept the truth of this country’s origins. They prefer to live with the myth of European exceptionalism. They prefer to pretend Europeans didn’t wage war on the native inhabitants of this country. They prefer to pretend Europeans didn’t bring diseases that ravaged the Native American population.
I also find it ironic that Cotton has so much to say about the “attack” on Thanksgiving, but he’s mum on dismantling systemic racism. I don’t remember Cotton writing opinion pieces or giving speeches about the lives of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Most of us saw Cotton for who he is a long time ago. His focus is on protecting the lie of white supremacy, and it starts with something as innocuous as Thanksgiving.