Upstream for the Holidays

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of America’s gift-giving season. The holiday is rooted in stories about a founding harvest feast with natives and newcomers.  Last November I wrote a column that connected the celebration of returning salmon with that first colonial mingling of cultures — one centered on sharing, the other focused on profit-taking.

A related essay by Kate Zernike was published recently in The New York Times. Her piece shows how the clash between these cultures continues in debates over the history of Thanksgiving. And it’s not about the relative contributions of indigenes and immigrants. It’s a feud between economic worldviews.

Forget what you learned about the first Thanksgiving being a celebration of a bountiful harvest, or an expression of gratitude to the Indians who helped the Pilgrims through those harsh first months in an unfamiliar land. In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

Zernike cites fallacies with this view, which she links to right-wing machinists like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. The Pilgrims were less like socialists than shareholders in a corporation. Their plan was to acquire property that they initially held in common because they thought this would expedite profits. And it wasn’t until after the first Thanksgiving that newcomers decided to subdivide native lands for their personal ownership.

History holds important lessons. Consider that first Thanksgiving from the perspective of this country’s first people. For a window of time, good neighboring overruled the takings of colonization. The native economy of gift-giving restrained the market machinery of empire. What we see through that small window is a cherished contrast to what happened afterwards.

Political marketers may twist the history of America’s first holiday to serve their party. I suspect some are even prone to defend the subsequent theft of resources that spread from the collusion of profiteers and government authority. Yet this collusion didn’t just steal life from the native commons. It worked against newcomers, just as it had in their ancestral homelands.

The same basic collusion of forces provoked American citizens to dress up as Indians and dump tea into Boston Harbor. Those faux indigenes were not just protesting taxation. They were resisting the abuse of corporate power.

Evidently, the Tea Party story has been co-opted by some of the same media moguls who would have us celebrate Thanksgiving as the triumph of a corporate economy. For those of us who hope to build on older traditions, I share the following prayer that was offered at this year’s salmon feast.

Thank goodness we’re alive and can celebrate the return of salmon to our watersheds. Praise be for the many gifts that are here to nourish us and foster our fellowship.

All of creation is a gift, and this return kicks off a season of gratitude. We’ve been conditioned to think we can break up this gift into pieces of property that are bought and sold and consumed in ever-increasing amounts. Yet creation is given as a whole in which we participate through stewardship and sharing.

Let us reaffirm our place in creation — in these watersheds, on this continent, this planet. Let us steward and share resources so that all the earth’s creatures can thrive. May we be as steadfast as the salmon in returning the gift of life to our home.

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