The Thanksgiving story Filipinos need to know

Shakira Sison

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Celebrating Thanksgiving to commemorate the arrival of the Europeans in Native American land is like celebrating the Japanese bombing of Manila or the Bataan Death March as a feast of friendship and brotherhood

Before you bite into that Thanksgiving turkey or sit with your friends over yams and cranberries to commemorate an American tradition, and before you partake of several restaurants’ and hotels’ Thanksgiving Feasts, you might want to know this.

The Thanksgiving story you’ve been told is false.

There was no love fest between the pilgrims and the Native Americans when they shared the bountiful harvest known as the Thanksgiving Feast in the 15th century. There was no such friendly exchange that gave birth to America as we know it.

Instead there was a genocide, where 700 Pequot men, women, and children were burned and systematically slaughtered by white settlers, where the next day the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony even declared “a day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children…This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

A revisionist history lesson

In schools across the US, “The First Thanksgiving” play always portrays the first Thanksgiving dinner as a peaceful offering of crops and friendship. Even I bought into the vague Columbus/pilgrim story told to me on my first Thanksgiving. It is a convenient story repeated over the past 500 years that the Native Americans gave up their land peacefully and with friendship and brotherhood.

However, it couldn’t be further from the truth as the arrival of the European settlers in New England eliminated over 90% of the Native American population due to disease and ethnic cleansing. Between 2 to 12 million natives lived in these areas which were in a state of war and fighting for the next centuries. 

For hundreds of years, American “Indians” were generally regarded as savages needing to be ruled by the whites. Even President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe 9 out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” 

Modern-day traditions

Having said that, the Thanksgiving tradition has evolved from its unspoken genocidal roots to a family event just as big as a Filipino Christmas. The best dishes are prepared, decorations are set, and the focus is on the gathering of family and friends, as well as the act of giving thanks for the blessings of the previous year. It has become so commercialized that Thanksgiving dinners are even gaining popularity in the Philippines. 

As an American holiday it remains a commemoration of the country’s birth, its victories, and its continued status as the Land of the Free. However it is also important to note that Native American communities still consider Thanksgiving Day a National Day of Mourning when they remember the courage of their ancestors whose land was forcibly taken from them by the early European settlers. 

Why is this relevant to Filipinos?

Just like Magellan did not “discover” the Philippines, Columbus did not “discover” America. It was inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.  When Magellan arrived on our shores in 1521, we already had language, social systems, a form of government, and even a system of trade. We were not “discovered” at all, but instead we were conquered. 

The Thanksgiving story is relevant to Filipinos because as a country that has been repeatedly colonized over the past 500 years, we know about historical revisionism all too well. From being taught that the Spanish occupation’s only objective was to propagate Christianity, and that the American and Japanese forces came to the Philippines to be our “friends,” history has a way of sweeping colonization’s greatest offenses under the rug, and people are only too eager to believe and repeat the more pleasing versions of these stories.

Celebrating an American Thanksgiving to commemorate the arrival of the Europeans in Native American land is like celebrating the Bombing of Manila or the Bataan Death March with a feast year after year, and saying that these days were about friendship and brotherhood. 

If we are to celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s focus on how it gathers families together to give thanks for their blessings. Let’s mention the families and communities that were driven out or killed so that America could be what it is today.

Let’s teach the real story of Thanksgiving to our children as well as the more valuable lesson that what we read in history books is not always the truth, and that believing the wrong version of the past directly influences our present and changes where we are headed. It is the stories that outlive us and propel our society forward.

Happy Thanksgiving! –

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