A Monument We Can All Celebrate

When they conquered distant lands, the Romans erected fornices and triumphal arches to help locals celebrate becoming Roman subjects.

Ungrateful Gauls and Britons had other feelings: “If … we bend our necks to the yoke, the Romans do but lay on heavier burdens, as if we bore them lightly. We used only to have one king at a time: now we have two; our lives are the prey of the military governor, while our goods are the prey of the civil commissioner. Whether they agree or disagree we are equally undone. […] We fight for our country, our wives, and our parents: these Romans fight only to gratify their avarice and their luxury.”

Monuments are paeans to power. Those who are not of the family, so to speak, must witness the hypocrisies of that power. When Andrew Carnegie built 1,679 public libraries, at a cost of more than a billion dollars in today’s money, some communities declined because of Carnegie’s ruthlessness with workers that helped make his fortune.

“There will be one place on this great green earth where Andrew Carnegie can’t get a monument with his money,” a union leader in West Virginia said.

This Thanksgiving week I took visitors to the St. Louis Gateway Arch. (Like Hemingway’s House in Key West, or the Sears Tower in Chicago, it has become a ritual of visitation.) The Arch refers of course to the opening of the west to white settlers; the National Park changed its name only this year, after renovation in its 50th year, from Jefferson National Expansion Park to Gateway Arch National Park. Lewis and Clark departed from here, and St. Louis was once the hub of trade and transport for a destiny that seemed manifest. The Arch is the Plymouth Rock of the Midwest. As a triumphal arch, its meaning is complicated.

“Trace the story of the Native Americans, explorers, pioneers, and rebels who made America possible,” the Arch website says. “Featuring six themed exhibit areas, this innovative and interactive museum celebrates America’s pioneering spirit.”

At least a couple of those things are mutually unintelligible. Or, as the architecture critic at The Washington Post wrote, the Arch’s designer “understood how essentially American the arch form was, a symbol of triumph and conquest that is hollow at its core.”

Interpretive materials in the Arch museum struggle to reconcile views of history and sometimes end up equivocating. The educational effect is uncertain. A tour group of elderly people was going through the museum yesterday before heading off to lunch at the Old Spaghetti Factory on Laclede’s Landing. Two ladies considered an exhibit on the government’s disastrous treatment of Native Americans, which was next to a movie screen showing clips of westerns.

“A terrible thing,” a lady said. “But I’m sure it was well-intentioned.”

What sort of monument would celebrate the ideals of our nation without controversy? On this Thanksgiving Day, what thing or event or story could include us all?

Sean Sherman, who won the 2018 James Beard Award for best American cookbook, has a suggestion. Sherman grew up on Pine Ridge and encountered the hypocrisies of narrative power as a child: “Our school had predominantly Native students, but we were still taught what everybody was about Thanksgiving: It represented a time when ‘pilgrims and Indians’ celebrated together, and it was about being thankful.”

But the Thanksgiving we think we celebrate, Sherman points out, was in part a celebration of a colonist massacre of a Pequot village, and though George Washington intended only a day of “thanksgiving and prayer,” modern Thanksgiving was a nationalist response to a wave of immigrants at the start of the 20th century.

“Colonial ideology became the identity of what it was to be truly ‘American,’ and they began implementing teachings to clearly define ‘Americanism’ for the new immigrants. One of these was the sanitized story of Thanksgiving—which fabricated a peaceful depiction between the colonizers and the tribes and neglected to mention the amount of death, destruction and land-grabbing that occurs against the first peoples….”

Sherman’s own thinking on the holiday has changed, “from a sense of bitterness surrounding the real history of those lies we tell, of the actual stories we should honor and mourn, and then with a renewed hope for what our celebrations could be, if we simply changed our focus.”

He proposes something very commonsensical: “Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk and think about anyway: the food.”

Sherman urges us to “explore a deeper connection to what are called ‘American’ foods by understanding true Native-American histories, and begin using what grows naturally around us, and to support Native-American growers. There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the beauty of the present.”

These beauties include “chanterelles, morels, ramps, wild ginger, chokecherries, wild plums, crab apples, cactus fruit, paw paws, manzanita berries, cattails, maple, wild rice…cedar, rose-hips, hickory, acorns … walnuts … heirloom beans, squash and pumpkins … Native corn varieties … smoked salmon and wild teas,” not to mention turkey and other game.

For a continent’s monumental bounty, which we are about to receive, it is easy to give thanks together.