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Being Thankful That We Can Learn from Other Cultures
11/27/2003

Paying attention only to the mainstream media, one might get the impression that the most important thing to remember about Thanksgiving is that it's based on a bunch of lies. The Providence Journal, for example, has to remind us of the "real" history of Thanksgiving because, well, we're all given a false story by those jingoistic grade-school teachers.

In "The First Thanksgiving: More myth than reality," Paul Davis opens by informing us:

Before you bite into that turkey leg, you might want to chew on this:

Much of what we celebrate at Thanksgiving is based on myth, not fact.

Of course, most holidays have a mythology about them, to the extent that anybody cares why they get a day off from work. But one wonders who it is, exactly, that needs to be disabused of false conceptions.

Everett Weeden, a Rhode Island Indian activist, was among those who started, in 1970, a National Day of Mourning involving a vigil in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Weeden has since redirected his efforts: "My energies are still focused on changing attitudes, but I don't have to march through the streets to do it. I work in the schools now, with teachers and students."

Here's how one Rhode Island grade school engenders interest in colonial history:

At the Clayville Elementary School in Rhode Island, fourth and fifth graders each fall build English settler and Indian villages in the thick woods behind the school. Students and teachers have been doing it for 12 years.

"It's a good kickoff to Rhode Island history," says Betty Angelotti, the teacher who started the program. In some ways, her mission echoes the one at Plimoth Plantation. "My main goal was to teach students about the feelings the Indians have for the environment," she says.

The message of Thanksgiving seems to be that others should be thankful that they aren't us. The message to those of us who cannot help but be American is that we should concentrate on learning from others. The Projo's editorial staff suggests that Thanksgiving is valuable amidst our peculiarly American frenzy to remind us how much more enlightened are the Europeans:

The search for what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "orgiastic future" is set aside to celebrate the now. So what an un-American holiday is the post-Calvinist Thanksgiving -- a sort of languid European feast. How much we could use more such days as we rush through the calendar going -- where?

On the op-ed page, Stephen Webber has a somewhat different take:

We are victims of our own success, since the American food supply is so abundant and food companies so efficient that we can afford to eat like kings and queens without going into debt. We have nobody to blame, then, but ourselves. What religions can teach us is that fast-food restaurants and giant food companies are only taking advantage of our human nature.

Thanksgiving only makes matters worse because it seems to be saying that overeating is what it means to be an American. We should be grateful for the variety of food choices we have in this country, but instead we go for quantity over quality.

Well, at least Mr. Webber reintroduces religion into the holiday — that we require Somebody to whom to be thankful. Pat Mack, of The Bergen Record, recently learned that.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I like it because it has no religious connotations, even though it was founded by a religious community. You can be a Protestant, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, even an agnostic or an atheist and still participate in this American celebration of gratitude for good fortune in your life.

A trip to Plimoth Plantation and a chat with Randy Joseph, history interpreter for its Wampanoag Education Program, helped to give Mack's views a somewhat more spiritual tint:

Thanksgiving has always been a tradition of Native Americans. They didn't learn it from the Pilgrims. Spirituality was and is a deeply sacred and personal part of Wampanoag life.

"From ancient times up to the present, we [Native Americans] have held ceremonies to give thanks for successful harvests and hunts, for good fortune."

I was especially interested in a celebration called Nickommo. It has a "giveaway" ceremony to show gratitude to the Creator who provides for "the people" [the tribe] and makes possible "the parade of blessings," Joseph said. The act of giving away material things shows respect and caring for others, while reminding the participants that material objects are only secondary to one's spiritual life.

Imagine that! A holiday in which people give each other presents in celebration of the gifts of their Creator. I'll tell ya: we sure could learn a lot from those Indians.

(That wouldn't be Saint Nickommo, would it?)

Posted by Justin Katz @ 10:01 AM EST