Thanksgiving in America is unique in that it is also called Turkey Day. People tend to eat loads of turkey and many other kinds of food and eventually fall into a slumber in order to get up in the middle of the night to shop for Black Friday. We can claim this to be a uniquely American phenomenon. Yet, there is something quite unsettling about calling Thanksgiving a day of “thanksgiving” or “turkey day.” After all, the turkey is not happy, according to one eyewitness report. There must be more appropriate labels. So, I call this day the “Native Americans Are Awesome Day.” I shall explain why in a minute. I suspect this blog may offend a lot of people but some may find it thought provoking after the red mist passes. For those who come to my blog looking for biblical interpretive insights, you will find the parallel later, but let’s now focus our attention on the picture enclosed in the blog.
The enclosed painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” by Jennie Brownscombe depicted in 1914. The painting shows the Plymouth pilgrims (not Puritans of New England) sitting with the Native Americans over a feast. The holiday itself was created by Abraham Lincoln’s administration with strong religious meanings. Based on the Wikipedia data we can gather, the first “thanksgiving” was celebrated after the Pilgrims’ first harvest in 1621. There were however many harvest festivals celebrated much earlier in the Virginia settlement. Harvest festival had long been an English tradition. I recall celebrating Harvest every year I was in England when I was doing my PhD. We had fun. However, Thanksgiving Day is also the Native American Day of Mourning for many Native Americans. My dear Native American friend (who is also a Christian) would fast one day when she lived in Plymouth for the sake of her oppressed people.
To confirm her mourning, historians have painted a dreary picture about thanksgiving and colonial settlement. Initially, when the English came, they were quite a mixed bag. Many did not acclimatize well to the North American land. Why indeed should they celebrate the successful crops? It is because many did not know how to work with American crops, and had to rely on the kindness of the Native Americans. Here I enlist the help of my Native American friend, to supply part of the information for this blog.
The original thanksgiving was a Wampanoag custom done throughout different seasons. My friend quotes from tribal elder Gladys Widdiss, “Every day (is) a day of thanksgiving to the Wampanoag . . .(We) give thanks to the dawn of the new day, at the end of the day, to the sun, to the moon, for rain for helping crops grow. . . There (is) always something to be thankful for. .. Giving thanks comes naturally for the Wampanoag.” These Native Americans, though not Christian, also extended hospitality towards those who needed help. The necessary hospitality that was part of their spiritual lineage actually saved the lives of the settlers. One area of help the Natives extended settlers was farming, whether planting beans, corn or melons. Many of us take for granted that corn is now almost universal food. At the time, the settlers did not know about corn because it was exclusively an American plant. Only after western colonization did corn become a global food. The Native Americans taught them how to grow corn and many other plants.
Based on the above facts, we can now look at the painting. According to the holiday stipulated by Lincoln, the official thanksgiving was somewhere around Nov. 26. Maybe the real date was earlier because harvest time was early fall. The painting however is based on the holiday in November. In order to interpret, we need to observe the “text” (i.e. the painting).
Right away, we will notice that there were only very few Native Americans. How can that be? The entire area of Plymouth was filled with Woodland Natives. According to some sources, the Native Americans outnumbered the Pilgrims two to one at the feast. The actual painting sets the Natives on right side off to one corner, making them unimportant characters. In fact, they were altogether alienated from the actual eating at the table. They were the “others” but in reality, they were the hosts and not guests of the land. After all, they taught the Pilgrims how to farm and survive in a rather harsh land.
The story within the painting takes yet one more ironic turn. Based on the clothing of the Pilgrims, the weather was starting to get cold. Near the Plymouth area, today’s temperature is 51 degrees F high and 40 degrees F low. That would be around 10 degree C at a high. This is chilly weather. I have just come back from Chicago Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Chicago can be quite chilly this time of the year compared to the West Coast where I live. If we imagine the Plymouth colony to be the same or colder, then you have the first thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were appropriately dressed for the occasion. Not so the Natives. They were not dressed very warm at all. One of them was bare-chested. This explains my blog title. These Natives were either very strong, so much so that they did not need to put on clothes, even in the evening, or that the painter had something else in mind.
My interpretation of the painting is as follows. The painter showed the Natives to be few in number, thus asserting their unimportant (in fact, alien) status in the myth of American colonization. In fact, the Natives were highly important in almost every settlement. For example, in Jamestown, without the help of the Natives, the colonists would have eventually eaten each other up (literally in the form of cannibalism), as some historians suggested. Although archaeologists debated about Jamestown tales of cannibalism, such brutality was entire possible. Furthermore, the Natives were quite helpful and civilized, in fact more civilized than many of the colonists. Some Natives were appalled at the lack of hygiene among the colonists. Such a lack of hygiene also helped spread diseases and eventual death not just to the colonists but also to the Natives. Yet, in the above painting, the Natives were portrayed as bare-chested barbarians. This is not just one painting with “naked natives.” Most paintings by whites about Native Americans show them to be naked also. This American myth continues to receive a greater exposure with modern cinema, especially in early cowboy movies where the Natives hardly wore any clothes. The lack of clothing betrays more of the painter’s (discriminating and racist?) ideology than reality. It is time to give the Native back their dues. The Natives were awesome, knowledgeable and civilized. They were NOT barbarians.
What can we say about thanksgiving? First, based on the painting context, we should thank the Native Americans for generously giving us their land. In the painting, the head of the household was giving thanks to God, while the Natives sat on the ground. Is unfair race reversal something to be thankful for? I do wonder if the God of Israel would receive that kind of thanksgiving when the Bible depicts Him to be the God of widows and orphans. Second, as we give thanks for God’s “blessing” (usually in material terms) this Thanksgiving, I wonder if our material abundance is at the expense of others (much like the Native Americans).
What can we REALLY say about thanksgiving? First, I believe thanksgiving shows that ALL Americans are immigrants other than the Natives (though you can argue that point, but the Natives probably were the first to occupy this great land). Should we be so harsh on other immigrants? The Pilgrims were “illegal” immigrants as well. Second, I believe that the Church should struggle more for the social justice of the Native Americans in her “mission.” Third, I believe we need to be cautious about thanking God for our consumerism and prosperity (especially demonstrated by the subsequent Black Friday) at the expense of the oppressed. Can any colonist rightly thank God for “giving” them the land that rightly belonged to many Natives whom they eventually slaughtered? Would God weep over our thanksgiving? I don’t know.
What does this post have to do with the Bible? A lot! When you see my process of interpretation of the painting above, you see my conclusion is quite different than some interpreters. My conclusion, though unusual for some readers, is based on the “layout” of the painting in combination with historical “facts.” The only trouble is that the “text” of the painting does not match historical “facts.” In other words, interpretation comes from many combined facts. No interpretation is neutral and objective. By interpreting the painting in this way, I have just dismissed the myth of objectivity. The sooner interpreters learn the lesson, the better off they are.
“Happy” Thanksgiving? Maybe! Maybe not! It all depends on what you’re giving thanks for and what narrative you accept. Perhaps, for some, it is the appropriate date for mourning. For others, a cautious prayer of thanks may be in order. As Galatians 2.10 says, “Remember the poor,” as you feast this Thanksgiving.
 Accessed Nov. 22, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)