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A Not-So-Traditional Thanksgiving

Part 3: America's Identity

by Neil Miller

There are obstacles to reconciliation on the Plymouth side as well as the Native American side. One is the Pilgrim Progress procession—a delight to tourists but, with its muskets and halberds, a hated symbol to many Indians, particularly to UAINE. On that subject, the Plymouth Historical Alliance (PHA), the grouping of local historical organizations that organizes the procession, is firm. The Progress represents a "snapshot in time," according to the PHA's Annette Talbot.

Talbot says any decision to "pretty it up," by getting rid of the offending muskets and halberds, would destroy the historical accuracy. "If we are going to modify it, why do it?" she asks. For her part, the Pilgrim Society's Peggy Baker sees the Progress as "the celebration of the survival of a group of people. There is no reason for this to be the only interpretation of history, but it is a legitimate one."

Crisis of Fragmentation

In major respects, the culture war over Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrim Progress and the other historical symbols of the town goes beyond Plymouth—to what historian Jill Lepore calls "the crisis of fragmentation in this country." It raises questions about what kind of nation we want to be, and whether in fact we can ever be one nation at all.

"On the basic civic stage," says Lepore, "it is our obligation to examine our American heritage in all its wonder and brutality. We have to find a way to acknowledge that both cultures—the Native Americans who lost their land and the Europeans who settled here—are constituent of what it is to be an American. We have inherited both those heritages. We can't claim just one."

Sometimes monuments and memorials have the ability to bring those seeming opposites together. One example is the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D. C. In a single place, Lepore argues, the memorial demonstrates our capacity "to embrace history with many sides," to portray both "the moral anguish of a nation and the personal sacrifice and courage of its soldiers."

What Kind of Nation Do We Want to Be?

Could some creative person achieve this in Plymouth—create a landmark of the early European settlement and its brutal underside? Maybe Plymouth is a good place to start, after all. "If Plymouth can't have both a day of Thanksgiving and a Day of Mourning," Lepore says, "then how can we expect America to have both, too?"



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