Reframing Thanksgiving: An Opportunity For Reconstruction

From Brad Davis on the blog at Accidental Tomatoes:

Later this week I’ll make the approximately thirty-mile drive south to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. Once there we’ll do what we always do: gather around the dinner table to partake in a royal feast, watch football (in between the dozing off stemming from gastrological overdose), and tell stories while basking in the joy of being together.

We’ll give thanks to God for all our blessings, explicitly tying this distinctly American holiday to the Divine, bathing it in inescapable religious overtones. We, as will most, will ascribe sacredness and holiness to the day.

But does it deserve such framing?

Excavation of the Cotiga Mound (photo courtesy of e-WV)

It isn’t lost on me that my route down U.S. 119 (also known as Corridor G) on Thursday will take me directly over the location of what once was a ceremonial burial mound of the ancient Adena people, the original inhabitants of this region.

Constructed almost entirely before the birth of Christ, the Cotiga Mound contained the remains of between seven and eighteen individuals. Sitting near the confluence of Miller Creek and the Tug Fork River, it was a grand memorial to a grand people and magnificent culture – and it was wiped away, erased in the name of progress.

The mound happened to be directly in the path of the corridor’s planned 1990s expansion, and rather than move the roadway a few hundred feet it was plowed down and paved over.

“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us” (Malcolm X)

All of us grew up with the story of the first Thanksgiving. I vividly recall the songs and stories this time of year during my grade school years.

It goes something like this: Seeking religious freedom, the pilgrims escaped persecution in their native Europe by coming to the shores of the New World. But they were woefully ill-prepared for the harsh New England climate, causing an existential crisis for these pioneers of progress. But the local indigenous population sweeps in to save the day, teaching the pilgrims how to farm and thus averting catastrophe. The Plymouth Colony and its European settlers survive.

Following the harvest of 1621, the pilgrims invite the native peoples to join them for a celebratory feast, giving thanks to God for life and new bonds of friendship and community.

A nice, sweetly-sanitized happy ending.

Until it wasn’t.

Rarely is the story that followed that first Thanksgiving gathering taught. The story of the systematic erasure of indigenous civilization. The story of European settler colonialism, dispossession and despair.

The plowing down and paving over of native culture, religion, and lives…all in the name of progress.

We aren’t taught that for many indigenous communities the fourth Thursday of November isn’t a day of celebration but one of mourning and resistance. For the original occupiers of this land the day isn’t an occasion to give thanks but to relive embedded generational trauma.

Some estimates say the settlement of the Americas directly resulted in the deaths of at least forty million and perhaps as high as sixty million native people, making it the longest sustained act of terror in human history. A “horror story, not an epic”[1] that serves to deconstruct the mythology of the American birth narrative and all the side dishes with which it is served up.

Perhaps Dr. Crystal Fleming says it best:

“We’ve been indoctrinated to believe colonization is a beautiful celebration…we’ve been taught to reframe it as a wonderful thing, when it’s a great moral failing.”[2]

A great moral failing in which the church played a leading role

The Doctrines of Devils

The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny that forged modern America while displacing its native inhabitants are genetic traits embedded in the toxic theology of American Christianity, and we who follow Jesus must come to grips with its heresy and immorality if we are to indeed be a generative, kingdom-centric people.

It is a great historical irony that a people of faith charged with proclaiming life, healing, and wholeness, in their participation in and justification of the oppressive colonization of the Americas, were instead death-dealing, propagating damage and brokenness.

From Spanish Roman Catholics forcing natives to convert to Christianity at the tip of the sword to Mainline Protestant-run boarding schools where all aspects of indigenous culture and religion were systematically eradicated, the church has blood on its hands.

At last count, the remains of over seven thousand children—forcibly taken from their families by the church—have been found buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of such schools across the U.S. and Canada.

Such is the haunting legacy of these doctrines of devils, a perverted, blasphemous Christianity twisted and reshaped in order to acquire dominion and power. An immoral, unethical construct that views some portions of humanity superior to others, thus giving those superior ones the right to take at will from the inferior.

This is a rejection of the imago dei. A rejection of the faith. A rejection of God.

This is a legacy with which we still are grappling, and it must be rejected.

An Alternative Route

Some of you may have heard last week’s episode of the Accidental Tomatoes Podcast, where I openly discuss my life as a drug trafficker prior to coming to the faith (if you haven’t listened, now’s a great time!) One aspect of my awakening to the Divine that I failed to talk about much is that there came a point where I became aware of the consequences of my actions.

I came face to face with the reality that for the better part of fifteen years I had been, to quote Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I had participated in the dismantling and destruction of people’s lives.

Thus came (forgive me for speaking “church-ese”) my moment of repentance, when I responded to God’s grace by turning in a different direction, taking an alternative route to the one I’d been traveling…a route that leads to reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and the restoration of communal relations.

This Thursday I plan on taking an alternative route to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family, one that is much longer and thus less comfortable and easy. One that allows me to avoid traveling directly over the former site of the Cotiga Mound.

Will this bring the mound back? Will it reconstruct it? No. But it does allow for me to in some way attempt to make amends…to stand in solidarity with my native siblings in a small act of both mourning and resistance while at the same time honoring the memory of that grand ancient people.

Thanksgiving provides the opportunity for all of us who follow the Galilean Healer to recognize the long road of destruction on which we’ve been traveling—constructed by the plowing down and paving over of entire civilizations—and intentionally determine to take an alternative route.

It’s the opportunity to turn and go in a different direction –  one that leads to becoming a different, reconstructed people.

Now that’s something for which we can truly give thanks.

[1] John M. Murrin in his essay “Beneficiaries of Catastrophe: The English Colonies in America.”

[2] From the “My American Melting Pot” podcast, Season 1, Episode 1: “Deconstructing Thanksgiving.”

Rev. Brad Davis (he/him) is the founder of  The New Society, a grassroots Central Appalachian kingdom movement. A native of one of the nation’s most economically and socially exploited regions, Brad’s passion is connecting its people to a holistic, therapeutic, liberating message of salvation he calls the Holler GospelClick here to read more of Brad‘s work.

Feature image: U.S. 119 (Corridor G) runs over the former site of the Cotiga Mound (photo by Roger May, used with permission)

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