As Putin ramps up airspace aggression over Turkey, Americans are today busy devouring the nation’s birdlike namesake.
From Maine to Seattle, family and friends are preparing for a famous meal of roast turkey with all the trimmings, to pay reflective homage to all they are grateful for and, in part, honour the first European American settlers who initiated this tradition almost 400 years ago.
According to Benjamin Franklin, the pilgrims sought to reflect on the joyful circumstance that “their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious”.
To this day, thanksgiving remains not only an important American holiday, but a social convention. Veterans are routinely thanked for their service by strangers and gratuities over and above the stated price of a meal are essentially mandatory.
It is appropriate and respectful that, at least once a year, the citizens of the world’s most prosperous nation reflect on just how good they have it. The Mayflower’s passengers had much to be thankful for beyond their safe journey. They had made their home in a New World brimming with natural beauty and economic opportunity. Equally, despite growing disharmony in many cities and widening income disparity, the nation’s modern-day inhabitants enjoy freedoms arguably unrivalled worldwide, with greater capacity for social mobility than anywhere else.
However, it is also appropriate that on Thanksgiving we pause to consider the experience of those Americans who inhabited the land before the settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
The Native American population north of the Rio Grande is thought to have numbered at least five million prior to settlement, with an untold number of tribes and nations – 562 of which are formally recognised by the US federal government today.
Just under one hundred of these original inhabitants were said to have taken part in the legendary breaking of the bread at Plymouth. In fact, some historians suggest that Thanksgiving itself is a long-standing tradition of the Wampanoag people that was adopted and adapted by the pilgrims.
Despite having been granted native title more than a century before Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans have hardly fared much better.
I recently travelled through the rugged and beautiful landscape of the Navajo people on the Utah-Arizona border. On the one hand, the local indigenous population here seems to have maintained strong bonds to country, probably because they were either never forcibly removed or because these ‘stolen generations’ are more distant than those of Australia. Traditional artwork and language is commonplace and strong cultural pride is evident.
But on the other, standards of living seem scarcely higher than in many remote Aboriginal communities in Australia’s outback, and certainly – despite the occasional Denver Broncos jersey or Phoenix Suns snapback – these communities seem vastly removed from the mainstream modern American dialogue.
It’s not a competition. Both countries have chequered pasts (to put it mildly) when it comes to governing their indigenous populations and delivering harmony, even in comparison to New World nations with similar histories like New Zealand and Canada. Occurrences of forcible destruction of family and tribal units – let alone acts of genocide – should sober even the most ardent nationalist.
That doesn’t mean Americans should be ashamed of their forefathers’ legacy or the values of freedom and liberty they bestowed. Settlement and nation-building did not come easy for the early pilgrims or for the generations of migrants that followed.
But when you are biting into that turkey leg today – just as when Aussies toss coins to commemorate the Anzacs or crack a coldie on Australia Day – it is worth sparing a thought for the original inhabitants of our lands, whose cultures can provide enduring wisdom, meaning and identity for us all, if we take a minute to give thanks.
Published on 26 November 2015