As we transition from October into November, I’ve chosen to talk about a movie that includes both Halloween and Thanksgiving in some ways: 1993’s Addams Family Values. To be more specific, I plan to discuss the scene where the camp attendees perform an end-of-summer play about Thanksgiving. This play within the movie is set up as a reenactment of the first Thanksgiving. Wednesday Addams, as played by Christina Ricci, is cast as Pocahontas, while her brother Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) gets to sing while wearing an oversized turkey costume. When the parents attend the final performance, Wednesday goes off script to say: “You have taken the land which is rightfully ours…Do not trust the Pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller.” This speech leads the secondary cast to burn the village, tie “Sarah Miller” to a stake, and to roast married camp co-counselors Gary Granger (Peter MacNicol) and his wife Becky Martin-Granger (Christine Baranski) on a rotating spit as Wednesday and Joel Glickman (David Krumholtz) ride off across the lake in a canoe.
Public schools in the 1960s and 1970s provided a very Eurocentric view of the “First Thanksgiving” and, having been taught to trust authority, I’d never questioned that history. By the time Addams Family Values came out in the 1990s, I was no longer taking everything I’d learned to be the absolute truth, so I found this scene very satisfying at that time. That the misfits should get back at the privileged whites who had taken over Native lands and lives seemed fitting. Yet I still hadn’t come to a complete understanding of the problematic nature of the costuming, casting, and writing of the scene. While I still enjoy watching most of Addams Family Values, the Thanksgiving scene causes me to cringe at the portrayal of the native “Chippewa” tribe.
After finally doing some long overdue background research, I’ve learned that one of the major problems with portrayal of the event in Addams Family Values is that the ancestral lands of the Chippewa, or Ojibwe, do not encompass what we now know as the New England states. The white Europeans who landed on the east coast encountered the Wampanoag confederation and the Pilgrims and some members of the Wampanoag did share something of a celebratory feast at some point. However, this “thanksgiving” was much more complex than what has been taught in school. The holiday we celebrate today is based upon half truths, the real story much deeper, richer, and more complex. Plus, I also learned that the first official celebration of the Thanksgiving we now know didn’t take place until 1863 – almost two hundred years after the supposed event we celebrate. A lot of misinformation made the rounds in those two centuries.
November is National Native American Heritage Month. While I first thought of this post as a way to reminisce about Addams Family Values, that idea evolved into this serving as a starting point for a discussion of the problematic portrayal of Native culture in our entertainment. I don’t have the background to discuss the subject in depth so I’m planning to spend this November seeking out more historical context on the history and culture of the Wampanoag confederation, preferably written by their descendants, and I encourage others to do the same as this holiday approaches. This could make for some very interesting and informative conversations and lead to a reevaluation of how we celebrate Thanksgiving today.