Myths, SEPs, and Thanksgiving
As I child I was an opportunistic believer. basically an agnostic, when it came to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. I didn't think too hard about how they supposedly completed their tasks and in return I kept getting a stocking full of presents, a hidden Easter basket, and a couple quarters in my tooth pillow.
I don't know how old I was at the time but I remember sitting with my dad in the car in the grocery store parking lot and saying, "Santa Claus isn't real, is he?"
In typical parent fashion, he turned it back on me, "What do you think?"
Since I still got presents that Christmas, confirming the truth behind this myth didn't affect me much.
There are other myths that we tell to children, truths that are simplified to introduce children to larger and more complicated topics - history, science, faith, etc. in "age-appropriate" ways. In some subjects, we are planting seeds and building a foundation for future learning - like my 6th grade Science teacher who taught us rules for chemical formulas with the sidebar "you'll learn about the exceptions to these rules in high school."
Some myths we teach children are like Santa Claus - we lay a foundation over the truth, blocking it from view, making future learning an act of deconstruction instead of construction. Future learning is unlearning a narrative that isn't just simplified but false.
The struggle comes when we don't ever remove the lies, don't ever dig beneath the foundation to wrestle with the truth.
This is my struggle with Thanksgiving. The story we tell about the origins of this holiday, not just to children but to ourselves, covers up the truth.
There are any number of articles, written this year, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower, and years past, about the "Myths of Thanksgiving." *(I've included several links below. I hope you will take the time to read one or two)
If we give the stories we tell ourselves in school pageants and crafts and costumes a second thought, we start to see holes in the happy veneer. We know things weren't rosy and friendly between European Settlers and the Indigenous tribes they encountered. At some point we learned about Small Pox and the Trail of Tears and the battles for lands and resources. We can look around and notice our Thanksgiving feast re-enactments exclude Indigenous representatives.
In Life, the Universe and Everything, part of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, the alien Ford Prefect explains SEPs (somebody else's problem) to Arthur Dent this way: "An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out."
In other words, SEPs rely "on people's natural predisposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain."
Like my opportunistic view of Santa Claus, where I accepted the myth because it was easier and more fun, it is easier to avert our gaze and proclaim the truth about Thanksgiving, and the truth of much of the founding of the United States as SEP - somebody else's problem.
It's easier, it's more fun, it's simpler if we focus on Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks, to practice gratitude, with a sprinkling of autumn décor and a kid's hand tracing colored to look like a turkey.
But this Thanksgiving myth becomes the truth we settle for and lures us into false narratives that hide pain and violence, oppression and exploitation.
We want to believe that our country was built on cooperation and freely given knowledge. But it wasn't. It was built on violence, genocide, slavery, and conquest. Our relatively young country was created on land that had been home to cultures that had existed for over a thousand years.
We paint as heroes those that came in search of a new place to extract resources in order to build their own wealth. We tell ourselves the first settlers came in order to have freedom from prosecution, forgetting that they in turn persecuted those who did not share their beliefs.
To look more closely at these truths is to challenge not just our myths about Thanksgiving but the cultural myths we tell ourselves about the values and ideals of our country. It can feel like a threat to our identity.
We value liberty and freedom but our founding and our success was built on the backs of those who were enslaved. We value justice but there is no justice for those whose land was pillaged.
It is tempting to decide this isn't the year to really wrestle with the complicated truth about Thanksgiving. We've already had to give up many of our traditions. We've been short on celebrations this year. Let us have this one.
We can decide it's still SEP. Or, we can gather around a smaller table than normal with our household and start our meal with an acknowledgment of the people whose land we are on (resources found here and here). In this year where there has been much grief, we can acknowledge that Indigenous communities have suffered disproportionately from the effects of the pandemic, a consequence of centuries of oppression.
This year we as a country have become more aware of the pain and anguish caused by celebrating people and times in our history that go against our stated values of freedom, justice, liberty. While it is easy to decide we are tired of facing a less flattering accounting of history, to do so is to continue causing harm.
And when so much outside of our control is causing harm to our neighbors, one small thing we can do is not avert our gaze from the truth.
The Smithsonian, 2019: The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue
The Smithsonian, 2020: Why the Myths of Plymouth Dominate the American Imagination
The New York Times, 2020: The Thanksgiving Myth Gets a Deeper Look This Year
Cape Code Times (USA Today Network), 2020: What you learned about the ‘first Thanksgiving’ isn’t true.