I've become aware of a surprising and profound connection between the very first Thanksgiving and the pandemic that is causing so much suffering in America today.
First let's take a quick look at that original Thanksgiving and then we can dig a little deeper to uncover some hidden connections. Thanksgiving is one of America's most cherished origin stories. It's certainly been one of mine. In school and in church I learned that the Pilgrims were a group of devout Christians escaping persecution in England. These courageous men, women and children endured a perilous ocean trip on a ship called the Mayflower to seek freedom in the New World. When they arrived they were greeted by friendly Native American people who helped them survive a difficult winter by bringing food to the first Thanksgiving feast.
That story is true enough but it's not the whole truth. And a big part of what's been left out of the story of the first Thanksgiving is the story of the first pandemic.
2020, the year of our pandemic, is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the deadly plagues that the Pilgrims brought with them to America in 1620. Did you ever wonder why the Pilgrims found so much vacant farmland when they arrived? It was because earlier pandemics brought over by European traders were so deadly that they had killed nearly all the local inhabitants. The Pilgrims established the village that they called Plymouth on a massive graveyard -- the remains of what had recently been a thriving village known as Patuxet. Squanto, the Native American who provided so much help to the Pilgrims, was the last surviving member of Patuxet village.
Now another pandemic has swept across this country. Sadly, there are very few public Thanksgiving celebrations this year. And at home we are being deprived of one of the best and biggest family gatherings of the year. Tragically, a quarter of a million Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions more have suffered debilitating illness. Many children aren't even going to school anymore. My grandchildren are at home attending virtual school on computer screens. And this year they won't be singing over the river and through woods to grandmother's house we go.
Faced with this deadly viral attack, why did we become more deeply divided instead of uniting as Americans to eliminate the coronavirus?
There are some pretty obvious answers to that. But I believe one of the deeper reasons is because we can no longer agree on an origin story. The recent election sounded to me like a desperate battle over outdated and contradictory origin stories.
The pandemic of 2020 connects me in a personal way to the pandemic of 1620. As an American I've had to face the painful and upsetting truth that the origin of my country is inseparable from the pandemics and the persecutions that killed 9 out of every 10 Native American inhabitants of this continent. The devastation was so widespread that there was often no one left to care for the sick, to bury the dead or to pass on the traditions.
I don't see how we can unite as a country until we face the truth of our origins. How can we free ourselves from the grip of this pandemic – or from the divisions that cripple us – unless we create a new origin story that includes everyone's voices?
Our current story is a half-told tale that cannot guide us in finding our way or in discovering our true destiny. And I believe more than ever that we do have a destiny as Americans. We are the mythic meeting place of all the nations of the world and I believe our destiny is to be a peacemaker on this planet. And we can only do that if we first make peace with each other.
One small step that I have taken is to acknowledge that every house I've ever lived in was built on what was once Native American land. One of my Thanksgiving traditions is to feel my grief and express my gratitude to the original inhabitants whose bones lie buried in the earth beneath my feet and whose spirits still live in the landscape that surrounds me.
I'd like to look back ten years from now in 2030 and see that Thanksgiving 2020 was the start of a national conversation about where we came from, who we are and where we want to go. Let's make 2020 the year of seeing clearly!