In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thanksgiving may seem a little difficult to celebrate this year for logistical and spiritual reasons. However, we might get some solace from the fact that Thanksgiving has always been a little complicated in the life of this nation.
The first official proclamation of Thanksgiving took place in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, and it’s been celebrated ever since. Of course, in 1863, America was in the middle the Civil War, a war that would not end until 1865 and that saw in the entire conflict more than three-quarters of a million Americans dead. Some start to a holiday in the American mythos!
The complicated, tension-filled nature of lowercase thanksgiving is also apparent in many spiritual traditions. This is probably due to the fact that admonishments to be thankful or grateful don’t usually come at the apex of our experience.
Rather than coming when there’s a lot to celebrate, paeans to gratitude often arise out of tragedy. It is almost as if the wisdom of ages past encourages practices of thanksgiving in an aspirational or even incantational way. These writings are calling us forward into a new reality that we don’t see quite yet. They are inviting us to do something more than our current circumstances, to admit that our present reality is not the only one that counts. Suffice it to say, Thanksgiving and thanksgiving can handle a little paradox.
One other tension is especially important to name on this day – while our national mythmaking centers on cooperation between Pilgrims and Native Americans, we know that the actual history of interaction between the two was not peaceful, idyllic, or just.
Settler colonialism and murder did not destroy the strong indigenous peoples of North America, but it did steal their territory from them. This Thanksgiving, it is important to recognize that this is also a part of Evanston’s story.
Evanston is a pretty amazing place, and I’m very thankful for the opportunities the City has given me and my family. It also has this astounding capacity to really punch above its weight. I rarely mention Evanston to family members or colleagues across the U.S. without their knowing about it. Of course, we have our issues, but I’m a big fan of the City.
But Evanston is not free from some tension, as we consider the ways that indigenous peoples’ and the City’s histories intertwine. Evanston was named for John Evans, a founder of Northwestern University and governor of the Colorado Territory, who is perhaps best known for his role in one of the nation’s deadliest massacres of Native Americans – the Sand Creek Massacre.
As governor of the Colorado Territory, Evans pursued aggressive expansion of his territory that came at the price of the autonomy and flourishing of native peoples there. In 1864, fearing Denver might be overrun, he stirred a frenzy by instructing “all citizens of Colorado… to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians [and] kill and destroy all enemies of the country.”
Of course, nearly all Native Americans were defined as hostile by his government, because only those who surrendered to a fort could be considered friendly by Evans’ administration.
He did this because he thought a policy of genocide in Colorado would win him popularity in Washington, perhaps enough to be awarded a senate seat in an era where such officials were appointed rather than elected. Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne did actually turn himself into a fort and his people along with the Arapaho camped alongside Sand Creek, but a colonel gave an order for a massacre anyway that resulted in the murder of between 70-500 unarmed men, women, and children, with many more wounded.
Evans gave a commendation to the colonel that utilized language that I don’t think it is fit to print. While thereport from Northwestern University emphasizes that Evans did not plan the attack and likely did not consider Chief Black Kettle’s band to be a threat, his policies directly led to the attack.
And so this place that we’re thankful for is not perfect, of course. It was native land, and then it was named for a person who massacred Native Americans. That’s a bit of local history, but here’s the rub: Thankfulness and gratitude are often complicated, and they are often tinged with other sets of darker experiences.
This Thanksgiving is hard – in the middle of COVID-19 and political divisions that tear us apart, unable to see friends and family. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult time to give thanks, and yet Thanksgiving is not just for the good times, or for the pure places. It is a more complex state of being.
So, this Thanksgiving be thankful, but also be upset at a floundering coronavirus response. Be thankful, but also realize that many of the things we are thankful for were not ours to take in the first place.
Be thankful, but not thankful in a way that is saccharine, too sweet, or fake, or in a way that does not tell the truth about settler colonialism and genocide of indigenous people. Be thankful in the midst of it all, but make sure you do so with eyes wide open.
Reverend Woolf is Senior Minister at Lake Street Church of Evanston.