Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. For me it has always been a very special holiday. In fact, growing up it was my favorite holiday because I knew family would get together, share a meal, and we would literally give thanks together. I celebrate Thanksgiving as a time for reflection, prayer, gratitude, listening to others, and looking back on the year.
The Thanksgiving Day meal was also a time when we were welcome to bring friends, neighbors, military families from a nearby base to the family feast. We believed no one should be alone on that day and if we knew someone, we were free to invite them.
I remember in high school, whenever I had a “steady” boyfriend I would invite him. I figured he needed to know how very large and connected my family was if he wanted to stay with me. It was, and still is, a time of wonder that no matter what has happened in my extended family–sickness, death, financial ruin, sometimes betrayals big and small–they are somehow worked out with that invitation to Thanksgiving. We take another chance at extending love to each other and offering support for persistence, for change, for trying to be our best selves moving forward.
As a part of that reflection, I’ve learned that Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the myth of Pilgrims and “Indians” sharing a meal and somehow agreeing to share land.
Thanksgiving is Not a Celebration for Many Indigenous People
What I didn’t know growing up is that the story of the first Thanksgiving was mostly poppycock. Yes, there was a gathering but it wasn’t about the free exchange of food and the free exchange of wisdom, and definitely not a free giving to the government of tribal lands. That is a convenient story to cover up what really happened as the government did horrific things to take land, and hunting grounds from native people. In fact, many indigenous people call this day “A Day of Mourning.”
This is from a longer piece about the history of Thanksgiving in the New York Times in 2020:
“Linda Coombs is a Wampanoag historian and a member of theWampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Wampanoag people attended the harvest ceremony that later became known as the first Thanksgiving. But the problem with its origin story goes beyond misrepresentations about what was served in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. (There is no evidence that turkey was on the menu, and pie couldn’t have been, because there was no flour or butter available for crust.)
The caricature of friendly Indians handing over food, knowledge and land to kindhearted Pilgrims was reinforced for generations by school curriculums, holiday pageants and children’s books. These stories were among the few appearances made by Native Americans in popular historical narratives, effectively erasing history-altering crimes, like the killing of tens of millions of buffalo, from the country’s consciousness. That massacre led to the mass starvation of Indigenous people.”
There are Always More Ways to Be Listeners and Truth Seekers to Strive to Be Better
I know for some, the reaction to this knowledge is anger–anger that a cherished story has been taken away from them. Yes, that can hurt. Some people want to lash out against someone or something for that hurt. However, lashing out against native people is the wrong response. They were not the ones who perpetuated the lie. Instead, I suggest expressing your displeasure to those in government leadership who continue to perpetuate the lie.
It is always hard to accept that you were not told the truth, or that something you deeply believe may not be true. That is part of growing up. It is part of becoming an adult and living in an imperfect world with imperfect people, and imperfect means of measuring and understanding.
Throughout history there have been forces willing to change the truth, coverup the truth for their own purposes. For me, once I learn the truth, it is incumbent on me to share it and not perpetuate the myth.
As a child, I believed all people told the truth all the time unless they were criminals. The reality is that we all learn to lie from an early age–whether it is lying to a parent that we’ve finished our homework or pretending to be sick so we don’t have to go somewhere. Some of us graduate to what I call regular social lying. This includes saying awful things about someone to friends and then praising that person to others in public. As adulthood looms, new lies perpetuate–lies about our income, lies about education or experience, lies about how successful or unsuccessful we are. Some people call these “white lies.” But they are still lies and the easier it becomes to not tell the truth to save face or to get something we want, the easier it is to expand that behavior and to begin to tell lies that are criminal.
For me, lying says I am more important than you. Lying says what I want or need is more important than what you want or need. Even “white lies.”
I am not a saint. I have told lies in the past and, though I strive not to do so now, I admit that I still occasionally obscure the truth when I believe telling the truth will be hurtful to a person. Though some may say that is okay, I know it is not. I’m doing that to take the easy way out FOR ME. It says I don’t want to be there for that pain or that anger when the truth is spoken. It suggests I know what is best for that person, when in fact that may not be true. I know that what I truly need to do is to find a way to express myself differently where I can tell the truth and deliver it in a loving way, and accept that it may be painful to both of us. I’m a work in progress.
How to Know What is True
One of the problems in society today is that people don’t agree on what the “truth” is. What is the truth about vaccine effectiveness? What is the truth about climate change? What is the truth about the insurrection on January 6th? What is the truth about voting rights? There is lots of information out there, and lots of people with opinions. There are lots of books that claim to tell the truth, but there is always a competing book with a different “truth.” For me the answer is to look at the overwhelming majority of research. Instead of listening to one person, one book, one researcher, I look for many and see where the majority agree.
One of the many things I am thankful for is that in the U.S. we do not rely on one person (a priest, a pastor, a political leader, or one news station or one newspaper) to be the holder of all truths. Instead, we have millions of people around the world seeking answers, doing research, and presenting information that can be checked. For me, the “real truth” is when the majority of those researchers are finding the same results.
Is it possible that “truth” will change. Certainly. As we have better tools for observation and measurement, there will be more information for us to assess. We are no longer beholding to one man, or one small group of learned individuals for truth. Instead we have millions. I know if I don’t read widely, give a chance to look at what different sources are saying, I don’t have a chance to find the truth. Instead I’m only reinforcing what I WANT to believe. But if I’m open to see the world and look at the research and observations of thousands or millions of other people I can find the truth.
What I WANT to believe can be very powerful. I WANT to believe that all people are loving, kind, and willing to help others. However, my observation and the proof of many historical records and scientific studies of people show that is not true. Yes there are many, many people who are good, loving, kind and willing to help others. In fact, there is research to back up that it is the majority of people around the world who fall into that category. However, there are people who are evil. There are people who value power or riches over everything else. There are people who believe they are a better than me and therefore I don’t matter. I don’t want to believe that, but I know it to be true not only from my own experience but from the experience of millions of people and research over many years.
When Aristotle won the argument that the earth was at the center of the universe because of his stature in society, in spite of many other scientists believing the earth revolved around the sun with many other planets, his findings stood for a thousand years as a central belief of natural philosophy (the field that scholars used for physical studies of the world). It even became engrained in Christian theology which then made it heresy to question it. Scientists were burned at the stake for questioning this earth-centric view of the universe or for daring to teach it.
Yet it was a Polish priest, a true believer in Christianity, Nicolaus Copernicus in 1515, whose observations showed the earth was indeed a planet like Venus and Mars that rotated around the sun. He didn’t publish his work until nearly 30 years later just before he died–perhaps out of fear of persecution or perhaps out of fear that he’d made a mistake in his calculations. It was another 100 years before Galileo, an Italian, confirmed it with his telescope. Near the same time, Kepler, in Germany, and Newton, in England, also came to the same conclusion and published papers explaining the science and the laws of motion. Today those findings still stand and those initial laws are the foundation for many other findings in physics, astronomy, engineering and other fields.
We are fortunate that today we have near instantaneous sharing of observations in the scientific communities around the world. They check each other, question each other, correct each other. We now have over 500 years of belief that the earth is a planet that rotates around the sun with thousands, if not millions, of scientific papers that agree with that. Yet…there are still people who don’t believe it. There are still people who believe the earth is flat because they cannot see over the horizon. There are still people who believe the earth is the center of the universe because they can only observe that the stars are above them. Truth does change, but people have great difficulty believing in something they cannot themselves measure or observe.
You don’t have to be a scientist to seek truth. You simply need to have the ability to open your mind to learning things that may be different than you thought. Open your mind to understand what scientist do when they seek truth.
First, scientists make an observation that describes a problem. For example, I observe that when I get a flu shot in October of every year I don’t get the flu. Before I started getting that shot every year, I used to get the flu most winters.
Second, scientists create a statement (a hypothesis) that the observation suggests may be true. Based on my observation, my statement would be that if people got a flu shot in October of every year they would not get the flu. So far, this is what most people do when seeking out information. They have a personal observation and apply it to the wider world.
But it is the Third step where scientists go further. They test the truth of that statement. If I would test that statement, I would ask hundreds of people to get a flu shot in October and then report back to me if they got the flu. I would record each person’s statement. Scientists today would be even better. That is that they would not count on people self-reporting if they got the flu. Instead they would study them throughout the winter and be able to count not only who got the flu but how bad it was and other nuances.
Fourth, scientists draw a conclusion from their testing. If out of 100 people 70 did not get the flu and 30 people did, my conclusion would be that getting the flu shot in October was 70% effective. That doesn’t guarantee that if I get a flu shot every year I won’t get the flu. But it’s pretty good odds.
However, scientists go even further than that. That is that they take their new statement: The flu shot is 70% effective and test it again and again. They don’t count on one test to be the truth. In addition, they look at if getting the shot in September is more effective, or November, or December. Does it make a difference of it’s on October 1st vs October 15th. One can test variables forever but there comes a time when individuals need to say there is enough evidence for me to get the shot.
Obviously, this is not the kind of personal testing most people do ton heir own. Instead, we rely on anecdotes. My sister got the flu shot and she got sick. Therefore, the flu shot is not effective. But relying on that one incident does not provide the whole picture and that means I would be making important decisions about my health based on anecdotes instead of research.
This scientific method doesn’t only apply to vaccination or health matters. Let’s return to the the historical record of that first Thanksgiving. Just like the Christian church in Aristotle’s time stopped people from telling a new truth about the earth’s place in the universe, there have been equal forces (political and power brokers) in the U.S. that worked hard to stop the truth about that first Thanksgiving. Just as there are still people who believe the earth is flat and the earth is the center of the universe, there are still people who refuse to believe the harm we did to native people in the U.S. It is hard to test things we believe to be true. It is hard to give up something we may have been taught as children and we now have evidence it is not true, or the truth is much more complex than we once thought.
The question is what am I going to believe? What are you going to believe? I am going to believe in the vast majority of research that is echoed not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. I am going to believe that science works and that when people around the world, through the hundreds and sometimes thousands of repeated studies, say something is true I believe it. It doesn’t mean I stop listening to others. But it means that I’m not going to take an anecdote or a single study as truth until there is more.
I’m going to believe that when historians, from different walks of life and different experiences, are looking at records of events and coming to the same conclusions that they are right. I’m going to believe them and seek to share their findings. I’m going to believe that there are people, other than myself, who hold truths I need to listen to, truths I need to test or trust. I’m going to believe that I am not the only person who has the truth. No one person has all of the truth.
Thanksgiving is definitely first and foremost about giving Thanks. I am thankful for the abundance of my life–my loving family and friends. The fact I have a roof over my head and food to eat is a blessing of immense proportions. I also give thanks that I have a mind that is capable of critical thinking, that I have the ability to read and a willingness to seek truth–not falling prey to single anecdotes or to the latest meme or video on social media. In addition to thanks for all that I’ve been given, Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, for listening, for striving to be an even better person.
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