Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
A sermon delivered November 25, 2018
“All life is a gift, which we are called to use to build the common good, and in so doing, make our own days glad.”
What has the Thanksgiving holiday meant to you over the course of your life?
When Jeff Stone and I first met to talk about the theme of memory and this service, we found ourselves reflecting on our changing understandings and expectations of Thanksgiving over time…
What does your memory surface most readily from when you were young?
(People are invited to offer responses)
What about over the course of your life since then – what do you associate with Thanksgiving?
(People are invited to offer responses)
In our family of 10, I knew the classic story of the Pilgrims, and I lived, pretty much, the Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving, with its warmth, family, table full of food …and its whiteness….
Video Everything You Know About Thanksgiving Is Wrong
Franchesca Ramsey has created a number of YouTube videos meant to help people understand white supremacy, white privilege and racism, which she does always with humor and pointed insight. Here, she extends her effort to speak to one of our foundational stories about America and another group of people, Native Americans.
One presumably indigenous person responded to this video with gratitude, to say thank you, AND to offer that it was not helpful to say things like “we…killed off all of the Native Americans.”
For me it’s a great example of someone doing what they can to help increase awareness, to make the invisible visible among us, AND doing it imperfectly. It is work that we cannot help but do imperfectly.
On Cole’s Hill, across the street from Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Plymouth Rock is very underwhelming, by the way. don’t bother), a monument commemorates the National Day of Mourning held on Thanksgiving Day each year since 1970.
A plaque there notes that:
“Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
This year’s National Day of Mourning was dedicated to today’s migrants.
I looked at many resources recently titled something like “The True Story of the First Thanksgiving.” The pieces run the entire gamut, from “it’s all about the evil English and Europeans celebrating the massacres of indigenous people,” to “it was all warm and loving and everyone got along just fine, and you are evil, stupid and unpatriotic for questioning it in the first place, what are you, communist?”
Among the many tellings, I am sure that you can find the “truth” that will support what you already believe.
What do Native Americans have to say?
In an episode of One Word Cut, several Native Americans were asked to do word association with the term Thanksgiving:
Video Thanksgiving: One Word Cut
Even among Native Americans, a range of responses, of course. There is no singular Native American identity or perspective. The faces themselves of a number of those speakers in the video visually challenge the stereotype of what it means to be “Native American.”
There has been a saying in circles of young Unitarian Universalists when they are creating their covenants, their list of promises, in our tradition, about how members will behave with one another. The saying is, “Don’t yuck my yum.” It’s a variation on. “Don’t rain on my parade.” Don’t dis the thing that I’m happy about. “Don’t yuck my yum.” I learned one of the latest versions just this weekend: “Don’t shade my shine.”
After [earlier in the service] naming the stress we’ve been carrying and the importance of treating ourselves and each other extra kindly, pointing out the injustices and the sorrows in the U.S. story of Thanksgiving – something you likely already know to some extent – risks “shading” your Thanksgiving “shine,” I know. Can’t we just celebrate thanksgiving with joy?
I thought, briefly, about focusing solely on gratitude this morning, all warmth and light, but I believe that these times call us to be proactively honest about the water we swim in, honest about who we are, and honest about what we see and think and say and do.
The truth is that this “life will break your heart,” AND “beckon with beauty and startle with delight.” [a reference to the Gretchen Haley reading offered earlier in the service] In the end, the heartbreak need not shade the beauty so much as help us to see more clearly, and so to feel the delight and gratitude more deeply.
So, a little bit of “yuck” today, en route to our “yum.”
Whatever happened in the 1600s, it is important to recognize, as Jim Loewen points out in Lies My Teacher Told Me, that the U.S. Thanksgiving story is one of our nation’s “creation myths,” one of our origin myths. It’s a founding story, developed along the way, that serves to explain and bless the origins of American society, and to justify why and how Europeans are here: as people seeking religious freedom, getting along nicely with the people who were already here, sharing generously and happily and gratefully and innocently.
Once again, how we choose to tell the story tells us most about ourselves.
It doesn’t serve the “America First” story-line to remember:
- and hold up as our founding colony the earlier colony of Jamestown, whose remaining members had to resort to cannibalism to survive, and those Virginians who were more violent toward indigenous people than the Pilgrims.
- that the very first non-native settlers in this land were the enslaved Africans left behind when the Spanish abandoned a settlement attempt in the 1500s in what is now South Carolina.
- That the pilgrims already had religious freedom in Holland, before they came, that the Pilgrims left worried about the influence of Dutch materialist culture on their children; that pilgrims were only a portion of the boat load and that economic interests were paramount for many of the travelers.
- That “one of the very first things the Pilgrims did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Wampanoag’s winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry.” (http://www.uaine.org)
- That three years before the Pilgrims arrived, English fisherman had unwittingly introduced diseases against which the indigenous population had no immunity. That by the time the Pilgrims arrived three years later, those diseases had killed 90-95 percent of the indigenous coastal population.
- That the native village at Plymouth was empty when the Pilgrims arrived and Squanto returned to his home…its inhabitants all dead or fled.
- That the Pilgrims arrived to a ready-made village, already-cleared fields and a clean source of water.
- That “King James and the early pilgrim leaders gave thanks for the plagues that afflicted the indigenous people, which [were proof to] to the English that God was on their side (Loewen 93).”
- That estimates for how many indigenous people lived in the Western hemisphere in the 1400s range from 75 to 145 million people. 95 percent of them died after contact with and violence by Europeans, making the low estimate 75 million people who died, enough, some researchers say, to result in re-forestation in this hemisphere, and a drop in CO2 levels.
- That a third of this country has been Spanish longer than it’s been “American.”
- That the Native people thought the English smelled bad, and tried, unsuccessfully it seems, to convince them to bathe more often.
These are just a very few of the history notes that almost never make it into history books or challenge the glossy Thanksgiving story as it is passed on to us.
As James Loewen notes, this is not to deny the courage of the Pilgrims, their genuine ignorance at the causes of disease, that relations with the native nations started off reasonably positively, that Plymouth, unlike other colonies, usually paid for land it took, or that Europeans were sometimes invited into native villages as protection against neighboring tribes or other Europeans.
As Loewen puts it, “the antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history (97).”
“To glorify the Pilgrims,” without including the inconvenient truths, “is dangerous,” Loewen says.
In these times, our times, it is becoming increasingly imperative – for the sake of saving democracy – to learn about and challenge – often and visibly – the parts of our national narratives that are dangerous, the stories that sustain and reinforce the harmful aspects of the nation’s image of itself and of the status quo. It’s an important part of the work ahead for all of us.
So, not to “shade your shine,” but …
I encourage you to watch for the nuances of how the Thanksgiving story functions, to this day, as a “creation myth” that shapes America’s view of itself as innocent, benevolent, superior, white, noble, exceptional, chosen, the savior, born without sin of a mostly virgin wilderness and all of a sudden in 1620. And I encourage all of us to challenge those notions when we can, even at the family Thanksgiving table, even when it’s inconvenient, in order to build the common good, and make our own days glad.
To link us back to gratitude and giving thanks, to point toward an honest “yum,” and for a different story to guide us, let’s turn to the words, wisdom and invitation of Robin Wall Kimmerer: mother, scientist, writer, professor, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is
to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared concerns for Mother Earth.
The Earth Calls Us to Gratitude Robin Wall Kimmerer
(excerpted from “Returning the Gift” – read at https://www.humansandnature.org/returning-the-gift
“Gratitude is most powerful as a response to the Earth because it provides an opening to reciprocity, to the act of giving back, to living in a way that the Earth will be grateful for us.”
To live in such a way “that the Earth will be grateful for us.” Wow. If we do that, so much else will benefit.
May we be so grateful.
Sources Cited and Consulted
Hogue, Michael S. American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World., 2018. Print.
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New Press, 2008. Print.
United American Indians of New England website: http://www.uaine.org