My town, Davis, is known as a liberal college town, a bastion of progressive thought. Nevertheless, the local paper, the Davis Enterprise, published this editorial a few days ago.
Here is my letter to the editor in reply:
The day before Thanksgiving, the Enterprise published an absurd and racist account of the Thanksgiving story that has no basis in reality, promotes negative stereotypes of Native Americans, and contributes to the divergent views of history that separate American whites from people of color.
The story emanated from an old Art Buchwald column, explaining the American holiday to the French. It was apparently told to students at Davis High for years. It explains that the Pilgrims sought a colony in the New World “where they could shoot Indians and eat turkey to their heart’s content.” It then describes Native Americans as cannibals, who taught the Pilgrims to grow corn “because they liked corn with their Pilgrims”. It uses the term “les Peaux-Rouges”, French for “redskins”. The story explains that the Pilgrims decided to have a feast of thanks because more corn was raised by the Pilgrims than Pilgrims killed by the redskins.
Nothing in this account is remotely true. The Pilgrims, vastly outnumbered by their Native hosts, sought to avoid conflict. The Wampanoag were not cannibals and did not kill a single Pilgrim at the time of the first Thanksgiving meal in 1622, which in fact celebrated a mutual defense pact negotiated between the two peoples that would last fifty years. The term “Thanksgiving” did not evolve until fifteen years later, when the Puritans massacred over six hundred Pequots, burning women and children alive. It was an attack that violated all norms of Native American warfare and shocked the Natives allied with the Puritans, who implored them to stop. Instead, the Puritans sold the survivors into slavery in Bermuda and banned the name “Pequot” to complete the genocide.
While historians point out the deft negotiating strategies of the Sachem Massasoit, this story presents Native Americans as murderous cannibals. Spoof or not, it echoes back to the centuries when they were referred to as savages, and to the mid-1800s when the term “redskins” was used during extermination campaigns. This mythic account promotes the sad state of affairs where most people are far more familiar with negative stereotypes of Native Americans than they are with actual facts. In fact, the Wampanoag remain today. Along with Native American communities across the country, they struggle to raise their children in an environment that continues to celebrate their conquest and dehumanize them.