What is Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving is a feast. But what is a feast? Anthropology is all about examining ourselves through the lens of other cultures. Or, at least, that’s what we used to do back in the good old days. Let’s have a look at this great American holiday from this perspective and see what we see.
A traditional feast in Venezuela
The enemy has arrived, in force, outside your village. The men are armed and wearing the symbols of war, which is appropriate because your group and the group milling about outside your walled settlement are at war. One of the men, wearing war garb but adorned also with white feathers to indicate a peaceful intent, attempts to enter your village but is stopped by guards. They converse briefly and the guards allow the man to crawl into your village through the only opening in the surrounding wall left following preparations for possible attack. After crawling though the small opening, he sands and walks into the center of the plaza where he kneels, and is handed a large container of beer which may or may not be poisoned. He drinks the entire amount without stopping, so that if it is poisoned, he will surely die, and if it is not, he will surely cop a buzz.
The visitor drops the container that once held the beer, still squatting on his haunches, and sways back and forth for a moment. He does not feel the poison. He only feels the buzz. He belches, stands up and walks towards the entrance whence he came. On his way, he is stopped by a warrior who places a large package on the visitor’s back, a tumpline across his forehead to help carry it, muttering a few words about how he knows his sister is young and unmarried. The visitor gives the warrior a stern look and crawls, carrying the package of ready-to-eat food, out of the walled village where he will share it with his compatriots as a snack.
An hour later a group of the enemy warriors, shouting a war cry, pushes their way through the tiny village entrance only to find that every single one of your warriors, dressed in the symbols of warfare but also adorned with small white feathers, is taking a nap. The invading warriors, six of them, engage in an aggressive-looking dance shouting “we are strong, we will pierce your skull with a spear.” Half of the six visiting warriors are indeed armed with a spears, and as they approach you and your sleeping compatriots, none of you appear to wake. Perhaps a sleepy eye opens to glare at the bellicose visitors now and then, but for the most part, not a muscle is moved or a nostril twitched as the visitors jab, inches short, at the reclining men, again and again, until each warrior has been mock attacked by the three dancers. By this time you notice that the other three dancers are women, the wives of the warriors making the threats, in drag.
Just as these six retire to a place of their choosing near the center of the plaza, another set of enemy warriors enters through the small hole in the wall. Their dress is that of the warrior, but again, topped with little white down feathers of a certain bird. Their dance is aggressive but this time also sexual in nature, and their chant is very different form the last “Your girls are ready to fuck. Your girls are ready for us to take them away when we slit your throats.”
And again, each of your male compatriots continues to recline and appear to not notice the intrusion, while the children hide behind stores of food and the women sit and watch, quietly amused. Except the young women, who giggle, and some taunt back “You are too old and shriveled” only to be shushed by the older women who know that sometimes these events go very badly, when the visitors practice treachery instead of ritual, killing the men who recline indifferently in their hammocks, and raping and stealing the women.
Again and again groups of visiting enemies enter, sometimes just men, sometimes men and women, dressed outrageously and engaging in a dance and a chant, the combination of which has never been seen before and will never be seen again. They’ve been working on this routine for weeks. Again and again, your village’s warriors ignore the threats as though they were less significant than a bothersome fly, the children continue to hide but peek out from their burrows with increasing boldness, and the women go from sitting quietly to taunting and chanting back to eventually rising up and getting to the most important business they have on this day …
… cooking the feast.
After all the enemy have danced their way into the village, each group retiring to the growing gaggle in the middle of the plaza, your warriors jump from their hammocks and causally pick up war clubs, bows and arrows, spears, or simply rip a pole from their front porch, to use as a weapon. They surround and approach the seated visitors who pay them no mind. As they approach, you notice your distant cousin among the enemy visitors, and just as you see him, one of your own warriors, your brother, walks to him and leads him by the hand back to his section of the circular village, to sit by his hearth or lay in his hammock. The visitor’s elderly wife follows, and that is when you finally recognize her … she is your grandmother’s sister, and was born in the village you live in now. Again and again this happens: Members of your village invite visiting families to their hearth and home, and now and then you recognize a relative among the visitors, or you mark the relationship between one of your own and the enemy family, and very often the women in the group are rather close to your own lineage.
Over the next few hours, after the sorting out of the visitors so that all are resting, their weapons cast to the side, at one hearth or another, you all start to eat. Universally, a buffet can only begin when someone in charge of cooking the food cajoles someone who is visiting to begin to eat. Two older women who have been in charge for the last five days of making the beer, cooking the turtles captured last week by the men on a foraging trip, baking the plantains harvested from the garden, and processing the fruits collected by younger women and children just this morning, drag some of the visiting enemies to the beer trough or to one of the large cauldrons of food and get them started on distributing it. Quite suddenly the activity level rises, and in less time that it takes an old man to choke on his ebene1, almost everyone is chowing down on the victuals, and most of the conversation has stopped.
Over the next two hours, the food is put aside and the men begin to talk. They talk about previous battles. Strangely, when one man reveals his pride in how quickly he killed the brother of one of the other men at the feast, there seem to be no hard feelings. It was war, and the man who did the killing was brave and is now of high status because of that killing. More important than that event, at the moment, is the fact that these two men each have a younger sister who is unmarried, and a younger brother who is also available. That there is blood spilled between them seems to increase the urgency with which they close a deal whereby they exchange their sisters in a marriage arrangement. In an hour or two, that deal is sealed. Now it only remains to get the girls to go along with it (now and then they do, though usually not).
Other men talk about their weapons, the narcotic drugs a particular person makes, a cache of machete’s recently obtained from the boat of a missionary that went missing (the boat, not the missionary) and two or three young dogs just now past their initial training and ready to hunt. Deals are made, objects are exchanged on the spot, other exchanges promised for later. Even though the women of your village were once renowned for making excellent pottery, today it is claimed that no one in your village, even the older ladies, have a clue as to how to do that. It just so happens that the visiting village, the enemies (or shall we say, at this point, the new allies?) are known to make the best pottery, while your village is known these days, though they never seemed to do this before, for making the best monkey-killing arrows.
Pottery and arrows and promises of more pottery and more arrows are exchanged, as well as two more promises of marriage. And, off to the side, a group of men have planned out the details of a raid on a third village, located to the south, former allies but since the breaking of two marriage contracts and a handful of other untoward events, now freshly minted enemies.
This goes on for three days. Shows of bravado, of expertise, making of alliances through trade and exchange and, ultimately (and we shall see how this goes) marriage arrangements, and perhaps equally ultimately, arrangements to cooperate in raids, waft through the conversation. Men speak in ritualized tones, sometimes softly but with a stage whisper meant to be heard by others, sometimes loudly with a chanting cadence, strongly suggesting that others are stingy, passive-aggressively decrying their own suffering for having gotten the short end of a deal, loudly committing their younger, healthier brothers and cousins to this or that duel to the death (the brother or cousin happens to be out of town at the moment).
While the men have contributed measurable effort to prepare for the feast, the women have done most of the work and continue to do so. But as they alternately prepare food, nurse the children or clean the pots, they catch up. Many of these women are sisters, across the boundary between your village and the former enemy, or in-laws from marriages way back in time, or cousins of some kind. Every married woman is a cousin to her husband, but not of the same clan, but since all the men are of the same clan, many of the women end up being from one clan, but a different one from the men, and are therefore at least nominally related, if not sharing known and fairly recent ancestors. The men eye the women suspiciously as they converse quietly, as to not be heard. If the alliance being formed today goes well, these women may end up all living in the same village, and their friendships, broken for the last several years by war but now renewed, will be important. If the alliance fails, then every one of these women may be considered a spy, because she may be more loyal to her brother or her cousin’s husband than to her own spouse. The women are well aware of this concern, and they remember to allow certain bits and pieces of conversation to be overheard by the occasionally quiet men, bits and pieces that will enhance a sense of uncertainty for some of the men, a sense of security for others, depending.
In truth, and not admitted by the men, the women now conversing in the background are the ones who arranged this feast. On a day to day basis, the men of warring villages avoid each other, only coming into contact when a raid is carried out, and then, that contact is in the form of a fight with arrows or an attack with spears. The women, in the meantime, forage in small groups (of only women) or work in distant fields or some specialized resource gathering area (like a mineral or clay deposit) that may be shared by the women of warring villages. In truth, and not known to the men, many of these women have conversed just weeks before, and see each other with reasonable frequency, as their day to day business simply can not be carried out if they are not allowed to do so, irrespective of the state of alliance or hatred among the men. It was through these conversations between women of the two villages, across the boundary of warfare, that this feast was arranged.
So, what is Thanksgiving again?
The above fictionalized prose is a reasonable description of a typical traditional Yanomamo feast, as documented by several anthropologists during the 20th century. Obviously, we are speaking today of a feast because Thanksgiving is a feast engaged in by Americans on the third Thursday of November, and there may be some connections. The Thanksgiving Feast is thought by modern Americans, especially those who read Wikipeda (which has pretty much ruined any possibility of having a non-trivialized conversation about American Thanksgiving, as per Wikipedia’s usual inability to address matters anthropological or historical) to be just another harvest festival, a gathering to partake in the harvest and to thank the appropriate god or gods for their largess.
That may be at least a little true. Harvest festivals do not need historical continuity to be connected to each other or to be similar in how they work. It need not be the case that Canadian Thanksgiving, American Thanksgiving and some roughly similar festivals found this time of year elsewhere are all descendants from some original Neolithic ritual. And, in fact, I would argue the opposite. The “first thanksgiving” (in the United States) was an event that happened at Plymouth in 1621. The documentation of this event is reasonably good, and it certainly happened, but much of what we know about it comes from documents that were clearly propaganda tools designed to raise money to fund the adventures of the Plymouth Plantation and other efforts. The event may have gone on for days and may have looked in some ways like the event I describe above, at least in so far as shared displays of bravado and arrangements for trading and overall male bonding are concerned. It was a male-oriented event but it is likely that most of the work was done by women. Both sides, the Wampanoag and the English (consisting of religious Puritans and others) brought the food, and it was held at the village of the English. The English may well have been engaging in something that seemed familiar to them earlier in Europe, and Wikipedia, in an all to typical fit of Western Centered cultural imperialism tells us so. But this ignores the fact that feasting was probably a widespread Native American activity.
One might argue that feasting is a global phenomenon, and that would be more or less true. Not all cultures have feasting, any more than all cultures have any given trait. But many do, and feasting is found in Eurasia, Africa and the New World, as well as Australia. But the nature and purpose of the feasting varies a great deal.
Here in Minnesota, Ojibwa Native Americans occupied most of the woodlands and some of the prairies during the 18th and early 19th century, with Lakota/Dakota/Sioux (I’ll call them Dakota) occupying the prairies of the western and southwestern part of the state, and the Dakotas. They were often at war. Ironically, the Dakota were probably the more war-like, having a culture more invested in bellicosity in comparison to the Algonquin speaking Ojibwa, but the Ojibwa had lucrative fur trapping contracts with the French and the English and, related to these contracts, were armed with guns. That made the Ojibwa more powerful than the Dakota, though the latter had certain advantages. As a result, it was clear to various leaders of the day that a continued war between them would result in strife and loss of income. Rather than fight all the time, they fought seasonally, selectively, and avoided fighting altogether when it interfered with the efficient exploitation of the numerous beaver of the region.
And, from all accounts, the maintenance of alliances between Ojibwa and Dakota was facilitated, in part, by feasting not entirely different (but perhaps less ritualized) than that described above. It seems most likely that the English at Plymouth, in the 1620s, were being brought into a Native practice by the Wampanoag, which was possibly done a few times then dropped (as other developments beyond our scope here occurred). By the time the “first Thanksgiving” was revived, about a century and a half later (eventually codified as an official holiday) the real meaning and purpose of it would have been forgotten. The first American Thanksgiving was probably a ritualized gathering meant to forge alliances, at which it is possible that a raid or two was planed, but at which there is no record of intermarriages between English and Native being arranged.
The First American Thanksgiving
Of the first Thanksgiving we have exactly two contemporary descriptions, and it isn’t much. In fact, there is so little, you can read it all in a few minutes. First, by Edward Winslow, from a letter of 12 December 1621, published for wider audiences within a year of its writing:
Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The second description was contemporary and from a good source (William Bradford) but was not known to anyone else until the middle of the 19th century. It was the event of this description becoming widely known that caused the revival in the US of the idea of a “First Thanksgiving” and this is the reason we celebrate the holiday today.
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
The true meaning of Thanksgiving
In the end, I think we all know what the true meaning of Thanksgiving is. Gravy, with stuffing a close second. Enjoy your feast and remember to treat your suaboya2 well.
Bradford, William. 1908. Bradford’s history of Plymouth plantation, 1606-1646. (Written ca. 1650)
Chagnon, Napolean A. 1996. Yanomamo: The Fierce People (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology). Harcourt Brace; 5th edition (November 15, 1996)
Heath, Dwight B. 1963: Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Corinth Books: New York
Winslow, Edward. 1621. Letter. In “Mourt’s Relation,” Heath 1963.
1Ebene is a narcotic substance ingested via the nose that results in vomiting and severe illness along with a hallucinogenic state.
2Suaboya is your appropriate aged unmarried paternal cross cousin (father’s sister’s offspring) and thus your preferred marriage partner.