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Sorting out the myths and history behind Thanksgiving

There are plenty of varying myths and beliefs around Thanksgiving. Some people think it marks the victimization of Native Americans under colonialism, while others just want to eat turkey in peace without their hyper-political nephew chiming in.

Thanksgiving can certainly raise new questions about colonialism, but it was actually invented to be a time when we put divisions aside and celebrate reciprocity, according to Matthew Dennis, professor of Environmental Studies and History at University of Oregon.

“Even though we do have a long history of colonialism, Thanksgiving itself doesn’t celebrate that colonial act of invasion and conquest,” Dennis told Seattle’s Morning News. “Thanksgiving celebrates 1621, not 1620 when they landed. It was all about generosity, reciprocity, really trying to build a relationship with Native people around them, and vice verse.”

According to Dennis, there was a holiday called Landing Day, which pilgrims celebrated on December 22 in the 18th century to mark the time when they stepped off onto Plymouth Rock and took possession of that land. But Thanksgiving was an attempt to heal previous historical wounds.

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“There were more Native people at the first Thanksgiving than there were white colonists, and both sides contributed to the pot,” Dennis said. “The idea was really to build bridges, build understanding as a way of going forward in a unified or least peaceful way. That’s the myth, but it’s actually based on a historical event.”

“Thanksgiving itself … is actually a time when the myth and history come together in a way that’s fairly positive.”

Thanksgiving is a respite from partisanship and commercialization

That doesn’t stop an endless supply of political hot takes from arising around the holiday, often criticizing the celebration of it. For Dennis, though, this has the potential to miss the unifying aspects.

“Because of the prominence of Thanksgiving, it’s an occasion that invites political commentary and even public political theater, which is great,” he said. “But you see many Native people celebrating Thanksgiving as well, given the fact that it’s indigenous to their own traditions often, and Natives are part of the United States fabric, having served in enormous numbers in America’s wars and given so much.”

“In a way, it’s a multicultural holiday that can incorporate those people who were the original Americans.”

Dennis sees the holiday as a respite from the partisan and commercialization often attached to so many other holidays.

“One of the things that people like about Thanksgiving — and many think of it as America’s most beloved holiday — is that it’s not Christmas, and it’s not commerce, and it’s not politics,” he said.

“It’s a kind of haven in our calendar against those kind of forces that of course are very powerful and encroach all the time.”

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