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The PC(USA) offers a post-Thanksgiving webinar on decolonizing and de-sanitizing the traditional narrative

The event, part of Native American Heritage Month, educates about the true origins of American Thanksgiving

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

Monday’s webinar sought to dispel the destructive aspects of the Thanksgiving myth. (Screenshot)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The Thanksgiving narrative many Americans learned in school and celebrate each year is a destructive myth, said the Rev. Irv Porter in a webinar offered on Monday. Porter is the Associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The webinar was offered as a part of Native American Heritage Month, which occurs each November.

The webinar aimed to “decolonize and de-sanitize” the traditional Thanksgiving narrative and replace it with a more accurate and honest version of the historical relationship between European settlers and Native Americans. Porter explained that he had hoped to offer the webinar prior to Thanksgiving Day in order to reframe the holiday but was unable to.

At the beginning of the hour-long webinar, Porter offered a land acknowledgment for the Mashpee Wampanoag, also known as the People of the First Light. A land acknowledgment is a practice that seeks to honor Native American people and their history by naming which tribes lived in the area being discussed prior to colonial invasion and forced removal.

Porter said that the Mashpee Wampanoag had inhabited the land of modern-day Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years.

The Rev. Irv Porter is Associate for Native American Intercultural Congregational Support in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. (File photo)

“Native people are rarely identified by tribe in the original Thanksgiving story,” Porter said. Instead, they are generally referred to by the word “Indians” — which was coined by Columbus when he mistakenly identified the Americas as the West Indies. Rejecting that inaccurate generalization, the webinar detailed the specific relationship between the Mashpee Wampanoag and the English colonists who settled at Plymouth.

Porter also noted his own complicated lineage and its connection to the Thanksgiving story. In addition to his Native American heritage, Porter is also a descendant of a Mayflower passenger through his grandmother, Helen Sanford Moffat. John Alden, a barrel-maker, was Porter’s eighth great-grandfather.

Popular framing of the Thanksgiving story portrays Pilgrims as a kindly people seeking religious freedom who discovered a “new world” or “wilderness.” Instead, Porter said, the world the colonists landed on was “as civilized and ancient” as Europe by the time the colonists arrived.

In fact, new evidence from Mexico suggests there were human settlements in the Western Hemisphere as early as 33,000 years ago — twice the widely accepted age of the earliest settlements of the Americas.

“History didn’t begin with the Mayflower,” Porter said. “The Native people already had a dynamic past, countless generations old, that shaped who they were and what they did, including how they responded to the English.”

The depiction of the Pilgrims as the stronger and more helpful of the two parties is also a myth, according to the webinar — one in line with and fueled by the concept of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is a term coined in 1845 to describe the belief that the United States was destined by God to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. This idea, Porter explained, played a pivotal role in westward expansion and the forced removal of many Native Americans from their land.

The colonial mindset was that European settlers were naturally superior to the Indigenous people they encountered and the Thanksgiving narrative that persists today was constructed to affirm that perspective. In truth, the Wamponaog helped the Pilgrims to survive by providing land, food and protection from other Native tribes.

In 1621, the sachem, or chief, of the Wampanoag Confederacy —Massasoit — established a treaty with the leaders of Plymouth. It was a “do no hurt” agreement between the two parties. It was the only treaty between Native Americans and English colonists to have lasted without change throughout the lifetimes of all its signatories.

The Rev. Irv Porter, inset, traced the history around Thanksgiving during a webinar he offered on Monday. (Screenshot)

However, the arrogance of the settlers quickly soured relations. In 1675, King Philip’s War, also known as Metacom’s War, broke out. Metacom was the son of Massasoit and the sachem after him. The violent conflict went on for two years and ended with Metacom’s head mounted on the town gate at the very site where his father had signed the peace treaty 55 years earlier.

That same week, the English colonists celebrated a “thanksgiving” to thank God for protecting them from their Native American enemy — the same people who had made a treaty with them and helped them survive decades earlier.

Porter said that it is this thanksgiving that many modern Native Americans fixate upon as a celebration of the massacre of Indigenous people. For this reason, many Native Americans today observe Thanksgiving as a day of mourning.

While Native American enslavement by Europeans began long before the war, that conflict significantly increased the number of Native Americans enslaved. Indeed, somewhere between 2.2 million and 5 million Native Americans were enslaved between 1492 and 1880, in addition to 12.5 million African people.

“The sin of slavery is more vast on this content than American history has ever admitted,” Porter said.

King Philip’s War also led colonists to seize nearly all Wampanoag land, leaving only village-sized reservations. Porter explained, “That conflict was just the beginning of the long battle to defend land and sovereignty, a struggle that continues until this day.” The webinar went on to detail the ongoing mistreatment and violence that Native Americans have experienced in the centuries that followed.

Porter pointed out that racism, slander and ill will have been passed down through generations all the way up to the modern day. In fact, as the webinar revealed, the Wampanoag people have only recently been recognized as a tribe by the federal government and given sovereign land after a decades-long advocacy process.

Crucial to the process of moving forward, Porter said that telling the truth about America’s history is crucial to the process of moving forward.

Porter concluded his webinar by emphasizing that modern Native American perspectives on the Thanksgiving holiday vary. However, he said it’s important to recognize that feasts of thanksgiving have been a part of Native American ritual for thousands of years, long before the Pilgrims ever set foot on American soil.

Porter urged modern Americans to reorient their understanding of that first Thanksgiving as the first invitation to join a millennia-old tradition among America’s Indigenous people to thank the land and to thank God, who was already present long before they arrived.

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