What message lies behind Jean Leon Gerome Ferris's painting called "The First Thanksgiving" dated 1919?
The First Thanksgiving is a sentimental, idealized portrait of the relationship between the pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. The artist wishes to convey the traditional understanding of Thanksgiving as a festival that brings people together in a spirit of friendship, irrespective of culture and race. The atmosphere of the depicted scene is suitably warm, friendly, and civilized.
The painting is not supposed to be an accurate rendition of historical fact. The black clothes worn by the pilgrims are historically inaccurate, and the Wampanoag did not wear feathers in their war bonnets. Crucially, they would not have been seated, either. Despite the atmosphere of human solidarity depicted in the Thanksgiving scene, the sitting posture of the Wampanoag indicates their subordination, both racial and cultural, to the white settlers. It's also instructive that the only Native American male in the picture whose entire face we can see is Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem, or leader. Yet though his position is dominant in relation to the other Native Americans in the picture, he still remains subordinate to the white pilgrims whose food he gratefully samples.
The First Thanksgiving contributes greatly to the mythologizing of early American history. There is nothing in Ferris's work to suggest the terrible fate that subsequently awaited Native American tribes across the length and breadth of what became the United States. The painting encapsulates a glib, unconvincing take on race relations in America, a prime example of the "Why can't we all just get along?" school of thought.
At best, it presents a noble ideal of how people of different races might live together in a spirit of harmony. At worst, it patronizes Native Americans, denies their equal status as human beings, and seeks to whitewash the long, tragic history of their systematic destruction at the hands of white European settlers.
Ferris' "The First Thanksgiving" helps to illuminate the mythology and commemoration of the Thanksgiving Holiday. The Wampanog Native Americans of Squanto and Somerset are seated in the foreground of the picture while the Pilgrims are sharing the fruits of their bounty with them. In the background, Pilgrim settler women are chatting with Native American women, and there is an overall sense of community present within the entire painting. The theme of such a rendering might be to invoke the spirit of togetherness that the holiday is meant to commemorate. If one accepts the premise offered as part of our own mythology, the Pilgrims were thankful at being able to survive the harsh conditions of the first year in settlement. Their dependence on the Native American assistance is the reason why they were being honored in this festival of brotherhood and togetherness. At the same time, the drawing is a mythologized version of Americana, because the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of settlers throughout its history is as diametrically opposed to the painting as possible. For their part, the Pilgrims, a splintered group that left England, was never quite at ease with communitarian notions of the good, as demonstrated through the Salem Witchcraft Trials where religion drove a true wedge in between the hopes of community. Simultaneously, the painting depicts a sense of contentment within the settlers. The expressions of the characters reflects a sense of happiness and joy within the individuals at their own state of being. The Westward Expansion of the naion belies this for in this process was a natural restlessness that widened the boundaries and permanently altered the relationships between White Settlers and Native Americans, as well as the connection between themselves and the land.