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Thanksgiving Day
Means Unity

Natalia J. Garland

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Another American holiday has joined the controversial ranks of Columbus Day and Halloween: and that holiday is Thanksgiving Day (see my essay Columbus Day to Halloween for a discussion of the these two holidays). Just as some Native Americans object to the celebration of Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America, some also object to the American account of Thanksgiving Day. They state that the first such American event was made possible by a traditional Wampanoag Indian feast. In other words, it was the Wampanoags rather than the Pilgrims who initiated the feast. They refer to the American Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning due to the unwillingness of some settlers to live in peace with the Natives both before and after the first American thanksgiving event.

Why have Americans continued to vigorously celebrate Thanksgiving Day since the time of the Plymouth settlement? Perhaps it is because, unlike Columbus Day which pinpoints the historic occasion of Columbus arriving on the shores of America, Thanksgiving Day has evolved beyond its historical roots to include national, religious, and family values which most of us hold dear. It might help to clarify these values if we turn back to George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
[End of quote.]

Washington's emphasis is on gratitude, humility, goodness, peace, safety, happiness, liberty, knowledge, true religion and good government. He also asks God "to pardon our national and other transgressions." It would seem that Washington was not ignorant of or arrogant about the injustices committed throughout American history up to 1789. He asks for forgiveness, while also defining and building upon whatever is good. Thanksgiving Day, therefore, is an affirmation of good relationships and the bountiful harvests which these relationships produce.

Americans express thanksgiving in various ways: family gatherings, extending dinner invitations to those who have no family, volunteering at food banks where free turkeys are given to the needy, volunteering for nonprofit organizations which serve free dinners to anyone who wants to sit at their table, and entertaining at nursing homes. If this is in agreement with the Wampanoag spirit, then we all have in common our essentially humanitarian values. That in itself is something which should unite us.

There are some Native Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving Day along with mainstream Americans. In yesterday's Macy's Parade in New York City, for example, the Cherokee National Youth Choir sang "Jingle Bells" in the Cherokee language and wore their traditional clothing. Their participation in this annual event represents the melting-pot version of America. These youth made a positive contribution to our concept of Thanksgiving Day by adding their unique blend of American and Cherokee customs. In this way, Thanksgiving Day continues the process of relationship and harvest.

If other Native Americans want to observe a National Day of Mourning, then this is a personal or tribal choice. Let people do whatever they feel is necessary for their healing and identity. But their activities should not counteract our national quest for unity and peace. Let us work together " render our national government a blessing to all the people..." Many of us need this special day so we can reflect on our personal priorities and become more sensitive to the needs of our communities. We need to sit around the table and ask one another, "What are you thankful for this year?" Togetherness is how we can overcome the lingering spirits of greed and racism. (Written 11/23/07: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland