Wednesday’s iconic Thanksgiving speech has defined how many millennials began to view Thanksgiving. Does it hold up today? (Paramount Pictures/IMDb)
It’s that time again–time to recollect on the messed-up history of Thanksgiving while enjoying some laughs with Addams Family Values.
If you’re a fan of the film, or even if you’ve just absorbed the film via collective societal osmosis, you know that one of the most pivotal scenes is when Wednesday (Christina Ricci), after being forced to participate in a Thanksgiving play at summer camp, defiantly steers from the colonialist script and tells the true story of the Native Americans while commanding the fellow camp outcasts to commit a coup. It’s thrilling stuff.
It’s a scene that has been lauded over the years for daring to thumb its nose at white supremacy’s lies about American history. But when that film came out, it was 1993. It’s now 2023–30 whole years. Has this scene truly held up to the passage of time, or, as a relic of the ’90s, is it considered gauche and offensive?
Why Wednesday’s speech has been lauded for so long
I started my thought process by looking up what others had to say. For the most part, folks are very appreciative of the scene for what it taught them growing up.
Elisa Guimarães wrote for Collider how the film helped her learn about American history as a young Brazilian living in the U.S.
“What matters is that it creates the foundation for a history in which the relationship between English colonists and Native Americans was peaceful and mutually profitable,” said Guimarães. “The problem is this isn’t how things actually went down. Like Wednesday puts it in her speech about why her character can’t fraternize with the pilgrim Sarah Miller – played by camper Amanda Buckman (Mercedes McNab) – and her family, the real history of the relationship between the European colonizers and Native Americans was marked by land-robbing, massacres, destitution, and just overall misery.”
“This history helped shape what the United States is today, and its effects are felt to this day by Native American communities still living in poverty,” she continued. “As a Brazilian, after watching Addams Family Values, I believe a good equivalent for the first Thanksgiving would be the first mass, immortalized by Vitor Meireles in a painting that has been in every single history textbook I ever owned. In Meireles’ artwork, the 16th century natives are represented as being awestruck by the devotion of the Portuguese, who are peacefully celebrating a religious ceremony after a long journey across the Atlantic. This image is pervasive in our national imaginary and serves as a founding myth of its own – a myth of peaceful colonization that erases the history slavery and forced conversions whose effects can still be felt in the current massacres that take place in the Amazon region.”
Guimarães also goes on to write how the film critiques the very idea of who gets to be called “American.” Generally, “Americans” are thought of as blue-eyed blondes, not the melting pot the country is often lauded as being.
“In one go, Addams Family Values managed to give me everything all those semi-educational cartoon episodes failed to give me throughout nearly a decade of my media-consuming life. For the first time, I had the context and the critique of this one super important holiday that kept being hammered into my brain for reasons I couldn’t fathom,” she said. “For the first time, I knew what it all meant, at least on a historical level. But Addams Family Values doesn’t stop there. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Paul Rudnick had Gary and Becky pick all the white, blonde children to play the pilgrims and give the Native American roles to everyone else. This paints Thanksgiving as not just an American holiday and founding myth, but as a holiday and founding myth for a specific kind of American.”
“By erasing the pains of Native Americans, the kind of history the holiday helps to uphold also erases the struggles of various peoples of color,” she continued. “Celebrating Thanksgiving, for a non-white or just not Mayflower-bound family, in this scenario, becomes an act of assimilation into a culture. This becomes even clearer in Wednesday’s – or Pocahontas’ – line about how beautiful the pilgrim Sarah Miller is due to her milky-white skin and her sun-yellow hair.”
Native American writer Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe (Upper Skagit and Nooksack tribes)wrote for Huffington Post how she remembered loving the film for this scene, particularly because it addressed her culture in a meaningful way.
“Like most Indian kids across the country, when I first saw Addams Family Values, I delighted in the speech delivered by the iconic little outcast. It was one of the first times I remember feeling seen in pop culture as she rants about the realities of reservations and settler/colonial violence, about selling beaded bracelets by the roadside,” she wrote. “Her statement about living in mobile homes resonated so intensely with me that I think my 10-year-old self actually fell in love with Christina Ricci. If I hadn’t been already, I was in that moment.”
“Looking like the Land of Lakes Indian Maiden, match in hand and eyes wide, she looked into the camera and promised to burn the pilgrim village to the ground, and I cheered,” LaPointe continued. “I don’t think the writers knew what they were doing. This wasn’t just another dark remark, pointing to the character’s fascination with all things morbid. This was a statement about Indigenous identity.”
“As Indigenous people, we have celebrated this speech as a way to laugh through it, to make light of our country’s embracing of a hypocritical holiday,” she wrote. “Each year it has brought me some small satisfaction to share this on my own social media feeds, to know that it might reach families that were waiting in line for turkey, clambering to make mountains of food, to come together for one night to sit around a table and announce what it was they were thankful for, without ever questioning why. It was small and silly, just something to brace myself against the waves of posts about cranberry sauces and family recipes.”
The flip-side: Why the scene isn’t as perfect as we think
However, even though Native and non-Native people alike see the value in the scene and praise it for boldly taking on the truth of American history, the scene is not without its faults.
Guimarães rightfully critiqued the film in her essay about how there were actually no Native American kids that were cast in the Thanksgiving takedown. This could have been a meaningful step in having actors who have a very personal stake in destroying the lie actually do that on screen. She also wrote how the the scene, in critiquing settler culture, still used “a considerable amount of racist stereotypes that have been following Native Americans for a long time in history.”
LaPointe also wrote a more pointed critique of Wednesday’s speech. Despite LaPointe’s first love of that scene, she realized “this wasn’t enough–it was never enough.”
She wrote how non-Natives will tell her that they are aware of Thanksgiving’s awful roots, but they will still justify why they celebrate the holiday. As she wrote, they would say, “But that’s not why *we* still celebrate…*We* get it. *We* just like the time off and being together.” She also wrote how her “woke” friends will tell their children the truth of Thanksgiving as they are sitting at the Thanksgiving table. But, she continued, it’s not enough to just talk about the day’s genocidal roots.
“I wonder what happens when they get to the part of the story when the pilgrims resorted to cannibalism. Do their children cry when it’s revealed that even after rescuing the settlers from starvation, the tribe still suffered violence from the very pilgrims they had just saved? Does the table hold a moment of silence for the lost lands, for the destruction of hunting grounds, of food sovereignty? Is it really enough just to *talk* about these things?”
Author Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz Indian Tribe) also discussed the scene for Electric Lit, writing how even though Wednesday is sticking it to the man, she’s still a settler herself. From what I gathered from her article, she likens Wednesday’s speech and subsquent arson session to wokeness, a white person declaring themselves purveyor of all knowledge about Native strife, but deciding burn (literally and figuratively) the surroundings–the Native and settler homes–around without repercussion. As she pointedly wrote, “After the pageant, having proven themselves the outcasts, through with their revenge and accountable to no one and no place, Wednesday and Pugsley go home. The buildings are still on fire, but someone else will watch them burn.”
Washuta’s essay points to the title of “outcast” being one that can be cast off by non-Natives, while Natives must wear that title every day. She recounts her childhood, in which she dealt with this very thing when kindergarten classmates were trying to act out the first Thanksgiving. She was part of the half of the class who were assigned to be Native American, but, as she wrote, “I didn’t belong, because I was goign to be Native the next day too, and every one after, while they were going to forget we’d even played this game.”
What does make Washuta eventually feel the togetherness she had been missing is when she attended Raven’s Feast in 2009. The feast is an annual salmon dinner honoring Native graduates of the University of Washington, where Washuta attended. She went to more Raven’s Feasts after that, and began to feel more of the sense of community she longed for.
“After my last Raven’s Feast, I went home and wept,” she wrote. “In a room of hundreds of Native students and relatives, I’d felt at ease, and I wanted to belong there forever. I cried into hands that smelled like salmon [a traditional food], even though I thought I was alone.”
How to make sense of the scene today
So what should we do with that scene, and, on a wider point, the whole of Thanksgiving? For better or worse, the holiday has been engrained in American culture and there is no way at this point to extricate it from America’s celebration of the fall season. If shallow wokeness isn’t the way, but outright celebration of the day isn’t right either, what can you do?
I think maybe some of the answer, at least for those of us who aren’t white, lies in LaPointe’s own admission of celebrating Thanksgiving.
LaPointe wrote how her family celebrated Thanksgiving, with her great-grandmother giving the family a speech in both English and her traditional language. As LaPointe wrote, “I saw the irony of a Coast Salish family gathering to share a meal on this day, but we’re a family just like you, and we gathered simply because we could, because we had an opportunity to share a meal.”
I think for most non-white people in America, (or, at the very least, I can speak for Black people), that we who don’t have a true cultural investment in the holiday only “celebrate” it because it is one of the few designated times we can spend together with family without some type of threat that racism will take over. Again, ironic, since the day is all about racism. But on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, white society takes a day off, as it were. They’re not focused on enacting their violent status quo, so since they’re off, *we* decide to celebrate as well, because we aren’t on the proverbial (or sometimes literal) chopping block.
What I might liken this phenomenon to is when the slave master and his family would take off for holidays, allowing the slaves to relax a bit–there will be no whipping or horrors that day, and they can finally relax and be human for at least 24 hours. I think for a lot of non-white families, the day off from racism is a breather from feeling inhuman the other days of the year. We’re happy we get to be a part of America for at least 24 hours.
So what about white people? What should they do? Well, I think to address the elephant in the room, no, white people living today didn’t cause the atrocities of the past. However, white society is based on white supremacy, and white supremacy is what caused these issues. I think the least people participating in white society (both white and non-white people) can do is recognize that, like LaPointe said, just knowing the history isn’t enough. We need to find our own individual ways of reckoning with the past until the country itself wants to reckon with it on a national scale. In other words, we need to find ways to perform reparations.
To start, if you’ve got “white guilt,” use it to your advantage and give some money to these causes and journalism institutions. If you’re not white, still give back and donate, because if you’re a person of color, we’re all in the same boat when it comes to making sure we all succeed against the dangerous status quo.
Indian Country Today: “ICT is an independent, nonprofit news enterprise that serves Indigenous communities. We reach audiences through our digital platform, ICTnews.org, and a half-hour, weekday broadcast, ICT Newscast with Aliyah Chavez. ICT is owned by IndiJ Public Media, an Arizona 501 (c)(3) public charity. IndiJ Public Media honors our ancestors and future generations through stories that make Indigenous peoples come alive.” (per website)
Native American Disability Law Center: “The Law Center’s mission is to advocate so that the rights of Native Americans with disabilities in the Four Corners area are enforced, strengthened and brought in harmony with their communities. Our advocates work to ensure that Native Americans with disabilities have access to justice and are empowered and equal members of their communities and nations. The issues we address include civil rights, special education, health care, and rights to public and private services. Our staff investigates abuse and neglect in care facilities, and provides rights-based training for people with disabilities, their families, educators and service providers.” (per website)
American Indian College Fund: “The American Indian College Fund invests in Native students and tribal college education to transform lives and communities. Since its founding in 1989, the American Indian College Fund has been the nation’s largest charity supporting Native student access to higher education. We provide scholarships and programming for American Indian and Alaska Native students to access higher education. And once students are in college, we provide them with the tools and support to succeed.” (per website)
First Nations Development Institute: “Our mission is to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy Native communities. We invest in and create innovative institutions and models that strengthen asset control and support economic development for American Indian people and their communities.” (per website)
Native America Today: “Native America Today was created in 2016 through an alliance between Native American Media and the former print publication, News from Indian Country. Our mission is to present current news and thought-provoking journalism, while bringing people closer together by broadening perspectives of Native peoples, marginalized by traditional stereotypical images. Additionally, Native America Today provides educational resources and social service assistance through its Community Resources Section, and its 500+ strong Video Gallery offers a cultural experience where Native depictions are in contemporary, realistic contexts.” (per website)
National Indian Child Care Association: “The National Indian Child Care Association is the recognized representative body of the Tribal Child Care and Development Fund Grantees. NICCA was established in 1993 to provide information, support, coordination, and advocacy for Tribal child care. Tribal child care programs serve over 300,000 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children from over 500 Federally recognized Tribes across the United States. Participation in the Child Care and Development Fund allows Tribal governments the opportunity to design, implement, and support programs which are beneficial to the unique needs of our Tribal citizens.” (per website)
Redhawk Native American Arts Council: “The Redhawk Native American Arts Council is a not-for-profit organization founded and maintained by Indigenhttps://www.nicca.us/ous American artists, performers, and educators residing in New York and New Jersey. Since 1994, Redhawk has been dedicated to supporting the urban Indigenous community and educating the general public about Indigenous American heritage through song, dance, theater, and other works of art and cultural forms of expression with a diverse group of Indigenous artists from the Americas to around the globe.” (per website)
Giving to charities and organizations isn’t a perfect solution for reparations. To me, it’s one of the most immediate, because you are literally putting your money where your mouth is and putting dollars towards people who actually need the support. But it’s not the only thing you can do. Whatever you can do, whether that’s creating art, raising awareness with family (which could, in theory, maybe include talking around the table about Thanksgiving) giving back monetarily, volunteering, or putting boots to the ground through physical activism, is a way you can start to break the cycle of lies and manipulation American culture has regarding Thanksgiving. It’s a way to try to give your respect to those who became fodder for this holiday.
DW McKinney wrote for Hello Giggles how the Wednesday scene helped her learn about the cross-cultural and cross-ethnic struggles Native Americans and Black Americans have. As a Black American herself, she learned while watching the film as a kid how Black history and Native American history are similarly dismissed and replaced with lies. At the end of her article, she said how she is hoping to break the cycle of Thanksgiving by raising her voice.
“The more times I watch Wednesday Addams allude to the fate of my fellow brown brothers and sisters, the more unwilling I am to help preserve the hateful history of tyrants,” she wrote. “I can find my joy in the other 364 days of the year. I do not need to celebrate a holiday that was never for me in the first place.”
“Instead, I will mourn with Indigenous peoples and honor their dead,” she continued. “I will stand with them when bulldozers encroach upon their culture and speak up when those in power attempt to erase their history. It is time to destroy the text of misguided white men. Now more than ever, it is our time to (re)write history.”
I think the least we can do is honor the dead and the sacrifices made by Native American people regarding this country. We’re on their land, and the least we can do is stand with them when others try to silence them. Perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson of Wednesday’s decision to torch the camp stage to the ground–even though she might not be the perfect vessel for a message about giving voice to the Indigenous, she is an embodiment of standing up for the oppressed and the outcast.
By starting that fire, she awakened many fires in the souls of young kids watching American values be contested, critiqued and torn apart. Wednesday awakened many kids to stand up for others who have been looked own upon, and that, in its own way, is a revolutionary fire that will only grow brighter the more the film is viewed generation after generation.