Thanksgiving and the Ambiguity of Memory

By Christoph Strobel

It was in the late after­noon on Novem­ber 22, 2018. Even by New Eng­land stan­dards, the weath­er was cold and blus­tery. Out­side of a dor­mi­to­ry at the uni­ver­si­ty where I teach, I met up with a Ger­man stu­dent who spent the 2018 fall semes­ter as a Ful­bright exchange stu­dent at my insti­tu­tion. My fam­i­ly had him over for din­ner before, and, as he had no place to go for Thanks­giv­ing, we invit­ed him to spend the hol­i­day din­ner at our house along with a few oth­er friends. When I picked him up, he was clear­ly sur­prised as the dor­mi­to­ry and the uni­ver­si­ty appeared com­plete­ly aban­doned. I explained to him that Thanks­giv­ing was ‘the’ big fam­i­ly event in the Unit­ed States and that extend­ed fam­i­lies are more like­ly to get togeth­er dur­ing this hol­i­day than for Christ­mas or the Fourth of July.

The din­ner table – resplen­dent with a large roast­ed turkey, mash pota­toes, var­i­ous breads and greens, as well as sweet pota­to and cran­ber­ry dish­es – remind­ed me of my first Thanks­giv­ings in 1993. I had just arrived in the U.S. and was look­ing for­ward to my job as a Ger­man lan­guage assis­tant at a small lib­er­al arts col­lege. Since those days, I have often won­dered about the var­i­ous mean­ings that Amer­i­cans ascribe to the hol­i­day and the some­times ambigu­ous and even con­test­ed rela­tion­ship that many have with Thanks­giv­ing. As a his­to­ri­an, I am fas­ci­nat­ed by how the his­to­ry that sur­rounds the hol­i­day is often ignored or san­i­tized by many in main­stream Amer­i­can soci­ety. In fact, Native Amer­i­cans tend to have an entire­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on Thanks­giv­ing, but more about that later.


The Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day is not only a time to meet fam­i­ly and friends; it is also con­nect­ed to the foun­da­tion­al myth of New Eng­land and the Unit­ed States: the Mayflower and the estab­lish­ment of Ply­mouth Colony late in 1620. The cel­e­bra­to­ry meal that many fam­i­lies all over the Unit­ed States hold, com­mem­o­rates a feast of giv­ing thanks for the abun­dant har­vest the Ply­mouth colonists enjoyed in the fall of 1621. The cel­e­bra­tion includ­ed Eng­lish colonists and Native Amer­i­cans who had taught the Eng­lish how to farm and sur­vive in the new land. The tra­di­tion of the meal con­tin­ued among some New Eng­lish fam­i­lies and spread beyond the region. It was Abra­ham Lin­coln who turned Thanks­giv­ing into a pub­lic nation­al hol­i­day dur­ing the Civ­il War era, and it grad­u­al­ly became part of the country’s his­toric mem­o­ry and civ­il reli­gion. In many pre-and pri­ma­ry schools through­out New Eng­land and the Unit­ed States, chil­dren still dress up as ‘Pil­grims’ and some­times as ‘Indi­ans’ to this day around Thanksgiving,

Since 1970, Native Amer­i­cans from New Eng­land and beyond gath­er for a Nation­al Day of Mourn­ing on Thanks­giv­ing Day in Ply­mouth, Mass­a­chu­setts, com­mem­o­rat­ing a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these past events. Every year, Native Amer­i­cans march through town and gath­er on a hill over­look­ing Ply­mouth Rock, a memo­r­i­al built at the place where the Puri­tan colonists sup­pos­ed­ly once land­ed. Here speech­es and musi­cal per­for­mances com­mem­o­rate and protest Native Amer­i­can loss of life and land as a result of the long, destruc­tive, and painful his­to­ry of col­o­niza­tion. Indige­nous activists have also installed a plaque on the hill­top that reminds the pub­lic of “the geno­cide of mil­lions of their peo­ple, the theft of their lands, and the relent­less assault on their cul­ture.” Yet, the speech­es also empha­size indige­nous sur­vival in New Eng­land and beyond. Speak­ers address the chal­lenges faced by mod­ern Native Amer­i­can soci­eties, such as alco­hol and drug addic­tion, crime rates, sex­u­al vio­lence, and lan­guage reten­tion. To Native Amer­i­can activists, the cer­e­mo­ny serves as a reminder that Native peo­ple in New Eng­land have not been con­quered and dis­ap­peared, but are still here.


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Christoph Stro­bel is Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Low­ell. He is the author of books, such as The Glob­al Atlantic: 1400–1900 and The Test­ing Grounds of Mod­ern Empire as well as the forth­com­ing Native Amer­i­cans of New Eng­land. With Alice Nash he co-authored Dai­ly Life of Native Amer­i­cans from Post-Columbian through Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Strobel’s essays appear in var­i­ous aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals and edit­ed col­lec­tions. In his free time, Christoph loves to spend time out­doors, explor­ing the many beau­ti­ful sites of New Eng­land with his family.