Happy Thanksgiving, or not.

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” has recently been published. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.

Dear Nicole,

Last Wednesday, my husband wished a Happy Thanksgiving to a local member of the tribe. He then realized that might have been a tactless comment. Nicole, what is your take?

Confidentially yours,


Dear Turkey,

It depends on which member of the tribe he spoke to. The Wampanoag tribe is made up of individuals (as is any tribe), and they are all entitled to, and capable of having, their own opinion. Some of them would find the comment tactless. Some of them would not. I do not presume the tribe to be so unified and its values so codified that there could be One Right Answer to the question. (If it were that codified, there would be no dissenting opinion among tribal members about, say, the casino.)

If you think you’ve made a tactless comment — to anyone, for any reason — ask them. (I know, we’re Yankees, we don’t like to do that. Do it anyhow.) Say, for instance, “Excuse me, was that tactless? If so, I apologize.” Maybe even have a conversation about it.

Actually, I went ahead and had that conversation for you. Twice. It would be presumptuous to speak on behalf of a collective entity I am not a part of, but it’s not presumptuous to ask questions of, and engage in dialogue with, members of that entity. Tribal members June Manning and Juli Vanderhoop were both kind enough to speak to me and give me permission to share their observations. Neither of them would take offense at being greeted with the phrase “Happy Thanksgiving.”

June confirmed what any Google search will tell you: In Mashpee, the Wampanoag tribe considers Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning for native peoples, and has done so since the 1970s. This does not mean none of them celebrate Thanksgiving as a day for family and community — in fact, most of them do. Juli had a very astute comment regarding this: While Thanksgiving is a day that commemorates a historically atrocious era, to say “Happy Thanksgiving” to somebody is not to comment on that history; the phrase is a greeting used for a present-day event, and that present-day event is a happy gathering — it’s a coming together of family and community.

This both acknowledges the past and keeps the focus on the present in a meaningful way. If I were a member of the tribe, I would take the same position.

June offered the observation that almost every people, of every race and creed, has somewhere in their collective history experienced persecution, conquest, occupation, invasion, enslavement, or exile, and she advocates for all people to look ahead rather than back. (As a Jew of Middle Eastern and German heritage, I am reminded of the famous nine-word Synopsis of Jewish Holidays: “They tried to kill us; we lived; let’s eat.”) June considers every day a potential Thanksgiving, for everyone and everything.

The message that I take from speaking to both women is that they find it possible to engage in the beauty and meaning of the present-day experience without whitewashing history. When I asked June how many members of the tribe were likely to share that attitude, she guessed about 50 percent. So do not assume that any given tribal member shares this perception — the point of my answer is not to tell you that this is how a tribe member feels. The point of my answer is that the only way you can know is if you ask.

I want to emphasize that all this only applies to Thanksgiving. It does not apply to that weekend in October formally known as Columbus Day. With all due respect to the Genoese — whose ancestors were invaded and captured by the Lombards — a holiday by that name should not exist. In lack of appropriateness, it falls somewhere between the (nonexistent) English holiday of William the Conqueror Day and the (nonexistent) Russian holiday of Genghis Khan Day.

That’s my take.