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The Thanksgiving Dilemma: Reevaluating Our Annual Celebration

Peter Mancall – University of Southern California

The myth of Thanksgiving is powerful and ubiquitous.  In the autumn of 1621, so American legend has it, English Pilgrims seeking religious freedom shared a feast with Wampanoags, the residents of the territory the Pilgrims labeled Plymouth.  The good feelings of that meal soon faded when Native peoples and English colonists, including the Pilgrims, began to compete for resources, initiating conflicts that raged for generations.  Yet despite the often-violent relations between the nation and Indigenous communities, the myth of coexistence remained.

Amid the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, responding to public pressure, declared the fourth Thursday of November to be a national holiday–with a nod to that early meal in New England.  But starting in 1970, many Americans, led by Indigenous protesters, believed that Thanksgiving should be rededicated as a National Day of Mourning to reflect the centuries-long displacement and persecution of Native Americans.  The recent shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day reflects a changing national mood.  Should Americans reconsider Thanksgiving when wrestling with our country’s complicated past?

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Peter C. Mancall is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He also serves as Director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. Before taking his position at USC, he held teaching positions at the University of Kansas and Harvard University. Professor Mancall received two teaching excellence awards at the University of Kansas and in 2004 was named a Gamma Sigma Alpha Professor of the Year by the University of Southern California.  From 2019-2020 he was the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University.

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