A Thanksgiving Primer

November 17, 2011

Words by Andrea Goto
Photography by Chia Chong
Styled by Libbie Summers
Indian Maiden: Ava Goto 

When I was ten, mom bought me a set of Christopher Columbus paper dolls from one of those newsprint Scholastic mailers. The punch-out dolls consisted of a dozen or so white men and a handful of natives, but I didn’t know what to do with them. This predated the PC police and Lies My Teacher Told Me, so I didn’t yet know that “discovery” is a euphemism for taking what isn’t rightfully yours. In other words, I didn’t have Columbus and his men fight with the natives; instead, they sat down together for the first Thanksgiving dinner.

I played this Thanksgiving scenario out so many times that it misshaped my understanding of history. I firmly believed that Columbus landed his fleet of ships—the Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria and Mayflower—on Plymouth Rock. I believed he and his men were friendly to the natives. I believed they all lived happily ever after.

Of course, they didn’t. My incredibly patient high school teacher explained that a continent and about two hundred years separated Columbus from Thanksgiving. And besides that, despite all the hype about friendship and goodwill, the Native Americans didn’t get much out of the experience besides “gifts” that required a heavy dose of penicillin to cure. To me, this was like learning that Santa Claus didn’t exist—or if he did, he filled our stockings with imported toys laced with lead.

But I wouldn’t let him rain on my Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I vowed to celebrate the holiday in the spirit in which it was conceived—however historically inaccurate.

As children, we better understood what Thanksgiving is all about—at least generally. My five-year-old daughter is no exception. She firmly believes that Native Americans wrote the “Turkey in my Belly” song, but she also believes that “we celebrate Thanksgiving to thank people for the things they have given us.” She later clarified: “If you do something nice for me, I’ll do something nice for you.” In 2011, even Thanksgiving has an exchange value.

I’m not going to split turkey feathers over the origins of Thanksgiving. What really matters is that you’re thankful for something, however you go about celebrating. Maybe you stick to convention and cook a turkey, watch football and bicker about the thinness of mom’s gravy. Or maybe you prefer the more unconventional at Thanksgiving; you eat pizza, hit the Black Friday sales at midnight, or even give a special shout-out to Christopher Columbus.


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