Home, Thanksgiving, and Stories

What is home? When are you home? Home: where you hang your hat; where the heart is. Sweet home.

It is the place of your belonging – a theme of Thanksgiving, and, indeed, belonging is the centerpoint for all our gratitudes – for gratitude flows from belonging, even as gratitude also affirms and strengthens our belonging. We gather in our homes, and maybe gather around with our homies – with our family, or with our friends, or both.

The Thanksgiving story of the pilgrims: they left home – because they didn’t feel at home where they were. They were religiously persecuted, so they headed out to a very distant, very strange new land in order to find a place where they could be at home with their faith.

We know that the traditional story is mostly untrue, and we have made a Thanksgiving practice here at CUUC of saying more accurately what happened. Briefly: In 1621, Wampanoag Indians investigated gun and cannon fire at a Pilgrim settlement to see them celebrating a successful harvest. The Wampanoag -- all male warriors, were fed as a gesture of peace. Apart from starting off as celebratory noise-making upon completion of the harvest, there was nothing particularly "Thanksgiving" about this event -- and it was not repeated annually. The first event we have record of that was identified as being for giving thanks came 15 years later. In 1636, when a murdered man was discovered in a boat in Plymouth, English Major John Mason collected his soldiers and killed and burned down the homes of all the neighboring Pequot Indians who were blamed for the murder. The following day, Plymouth Governor William Bradford applauded the massacre of the 400 Indians, including the women and children. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed: “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots.”

And so we come to today’s story: a pioneer family heading west to become homesteaders on the great plains. I grew up with stories like this of America’s westward expansion. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books tell about a family moving from Little House in the Big Woods to Little House on the Prairie. It was a comforting story -- an inspiring story of facing hardship and building a better life.

A couple things to notice that are left out.

Our story today didn't mention whether the family was black or white. I grew up always imagining white people in these roles. But let us remember that black families as well as white ones migrated West in the 19th century. The brief details of today’s story aren’t enough to identify this family as black or white. But that’s only because so much is indeed left out. The background of racial attitudes and biases would have profoundly influenced our family’s experience – and would have made a white and a black family’s experience of their risks and challenges very different.

On the one hand, parts of the challenge, of course, were the same. White families and black families were bound together by common hardships: the mud, the broken wagon wheels, the torn wagon coverings, the failing horses, the ravages of disease. These factors did not discriminate by race.

On the other hand, a white family and a black family would have been separated by a wide gulf of assumptions of white supremacy that infected the minds of both whites and blacks and made the context of their respective struggles quite different.

So that’s one lens we should have in place as we take in this story. Another lens is that the new home our settler colonizers found was on land that had been someone else’s home. The unmentioned reality of indigenous dispossession is a background awareness that we bring to this story.

So why re-tell this story? I do hope you were wondering that. We re-tell the story – viewing it through the lenses of awareness I mentioned -- because everybody gets a place at the table. All of who we are gets a seat at our Thanksgiving Table.

We are the poor white settler colonizers of Scotch-Irish extraction whose parents fled religious conflict and English persecution in Great Britain, and who wrought persecution in turn upon what, to them, was the New World. And we are the poor black frontier family who were also there, homesteading on the great plains. That’s us, too. And we are the Lakota, Pawnee, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Osage, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Wichita, and Cree – to name but some of the plains peoples pushed from their homeland by the settler colonists. Nineteenth-century white settlers demonized the indigenous peoples, but it is no reparation for that damage to now demonize the white settlers.

We re-tell the story today in order to hold in our minds and in our hearts BOTH the reality of the harm they did AND the reality of their human yearning for a better life. We can hold both those realities at the same time.

The road home is an uneven one. All of us, on our path to find our place of belonging, have made mistakes. We have been unkind and cruel when we didn’t need to be. We have sometimes, in our quest for home, made others feel less at home, or even deprived them of home. But where there is life, there are redemptive possibilities.

Even the settler colonialists, as blinkered and cruel as they were, had inherent worth and dignity. Precisely because they did, we may hold them responsible for the harms they perpetrated. We see their humanity in this little story – and also know they could have done better.

And we can do better.

Thankful for the homes we have, and thankful for the vision of justice we now have, we can build our home in compassion -- while also seeing to it that all the peoples, and all the creatures of our planet have a home – and belong.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a reflection that is both broad and focused on acceptance and condemnation of our assumptions—and our blindness—regarding kindness that defines us in our culture, still not found in our actual record of human empathy.