THANKSGIVING in the USA is all about the annual feast. The focus of a feast is on the food. The reason for the event is the food. Families should assemble, but the primary reason they come is to appreciate the food together. Feasts are different from other gatherings and celebrations in that respect. A US Thanksgiving feast also involves an assumed or implied narrative.
Based on reminiscences and reflections on Thanksgiving feasts I have experienced, I suggest that the operative underlying narrative is not about Pilgrims. What I have observed is: (1) the feast is a tradition energized by memories that go back to the generation before last. The cooks who organize the feast remember their grandparents. It would be a rare Thanksgiving if the food traditions of remembered ancestors were not talked about. The ones cooking now may do things differently but they will remark on the differences. That’s the narrative running through their minds even if the Thanksgiving meal is outside the home or the menu scandalously includes tacos rather than turkey. (2) The feast is a celebration of bounty. It is a harvest festival above all, but the food represents a whole range of blessings, endowments, benefits and entitlements that are circumstantial. The circumstance is “America” but it is felt in a more localized sense as “our community and family and the territory where we live(d) and thrive(d).” (3) The foundational narrative is that our ancestors arrived and settled here in this general locality. Our collective story begins with that settling. Afterward, our place is “around here,” even if we or some of us are not here now. This is our place and our natural culture is the attitudes and behaviors of the people in this place.
These three dynamics give purpose and power to the Thanksgiving feast or whatever is substituted for it. The Thanksgiving feast is a reiteration of remembered family tradition, an emotional response to a sense of physical and social well-being, and an expression of being rooted and grounded (i.e. settled). If any of these three components is compromised the celebration of Thanksgiving will be weakened. Even though the food may be the same, if there are none around to share memories of Thanksgivings past (as with prisoners, for example) the celebration has a hollow ring. People who are unsettled (e.g. homeless) miss some of the power of the celebration, even if some kind agency serves dinner. Thanksgiving with tragically ill patients has a sense of urgency that interferes.
On the other hand, it does not essentially matter that the details of the stories we inherit about being settled are not the same. It is Thanksgiving in a farmhouse in Kansas as well as in a townhouse in the Bronx as long as there is a feast celebrating belonging, wellbeing, and settlement. That is what makes the idea of a national Thanksgiving functional. Even those of us living abroad can assume a Thanksgiving mode by keeping in mind our settled heritage as well as for our current situation. Of course, if we are religious we also give thankful credit to God for our wellbeing.
This year 2016, following the most tumultuous national referendum on national values in living memory, it would be good to reconsider what enables and underlies a successful US Thanksgiving. The least considered component of Thanksgiving is the concept of settlement.
Although the operative, Thanksgiving narrative (the story that we feel without prompting) goes no farther back, perhaps, than a vague notion that our ancestors ended their moving by settling down in new home territory, we can view this through a wider field of vision. Essential to our clan’s settlement is the whole idea of settlement.
“Settler Colonialism” is the emerging term for the particular type of process engaged in by immigrants from Europe into North America in the 17-19th centuries. Settler colonialism included certain concepts: (1) that the settlers were entitled to move where they went. (Some were compelled, in fact). (2) That there was no need to take prior residents into account. (3) That this movement reiterated a sacred (Biblical) precedent and mandate. (4) That the legal practices the settlers developed were sovereign. (5) That ranching, farming and manufacturing were the standard enterprises (mining, shipping and forestry were aspects in support of them).
The US national narrative tends to boldly celebrate this. Significant episodes revolve around successful establishment of settlements and elimination of threats. Heroes are those who pushed colonization forward. Alternative narratives were nullified in various ways.
What other narrative is possible?
A narrative of belonging has no concept of interruption, resettlement, or ownership. Eternal things cannot be owned. Well-being is not dependent on possessing such things. Even more absurd is the idea of owning other living beings or of a hierarchy of human authority. Instead there is unquestionable but inscrutable connectivity. In such a cultural ethos, thanksgiving is a response to particular events (a successful hunt, for example) rather than to abstract feeling and cyclical tradition.
A narrative of immigration is concerned with transition. Change is the constant. The destination is ahead. Narratives of immigration are nostalgic as well as hopeful, rather than satisfied and defensive. They espouse mystery, celebrate passages, and expect thresholds. Thanksgiving is concerned with incidents of adaptation and accommodation. Narratives of immigration are recapitulated in sacramental ceremonies in which divine-human encounters in the past presage ones in the present and portend ones to come. Thanksgiving is anticipatory.
These are two alternative narratives. They are irreconcilable with a settler narrative.
In order to celebrate the Great American Thanksgiving Feast it is not necessary to pay attention to any of these narratives. Consideration of the implications of settler colonialism could come at another time. Ironically, the pressure to do so on Thanksgiving comes from the imposition of a meta-narrative about patriotism, national heritage, and the myth of the first settlers. The story of the Pilgrims impels a response that our collective amnesia could otherwise avoid. The sober conclusion to critical review of settler colonization of North America is that the colonists cared nothing for their predecessors in the land and willfully drove them away as obstructions to settlement. We in any generation after these pioneer settlers are beneficiaries of their ruthlessness. The remnant of the original residents who survive, as well as recent immigrants, either do not share in the Thanksgiving or have capitulated to the principles of settler colonialism upon which the Thanksgiving Harvest Feast is founded and conducted.
Enjoy your turkey (or tacos).
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.