Happy National Day of Mourning

Cultural anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö of Cornell University recently published an update in Anthropology Today to his masterful essay about the political symbolism of the Thanksgiving turkey pardon. As in his pamphlet (available for free on the Internet), he masterfully carves up savory morsels of insight.

In President Obama’s first turkey pardon in 2009, he narrated the obligatory account of the English settlers and invoked their divine protection. Obama diverted, however, from the usual script by mentioning American Indians as contributors to the nation. A slight nod to “inclusiveness,” but Fiskesjö opines that faint recognition is better than none at all.

Sarah Palin with decapitated turkey in background; Photo Credit: AP/KARE-TV
Sarah Palin with decapitated turkey in background; Photo Credit: AP/KARE-TV

The tradition of the turkey pardoning began in 1980 as a national ritual. Very few state governors pardon turkeys, though it has been regularly done in Alabama since the 1940s where it originated as a governor’s ritual. So Sarah Palin’s 2008 turkey pardon was particularly noteworthy. And all the more so, since she made the mistake of performing the pardoning ritual at a turkey farm in Alaska surrounded by hundreds of slaughtered turkeys and others awaiting their death. Clips of the event, with the backdrop of turkey carcasses, went viral on the Internet.

The fate of the pardoned turkey(s) has been transformed since the national pardoning ritual began. From the 1980s to 2004, the turkeys were taken to a petting zoo in Virginia near Washington, DC, called, ironically, the Frying Pan. After a period of time on display, they were killed. Starting in 2005, President George W. Bush had the birds flown to Disneyland, Florida, where the National Turkey rode on a special float in a procession. In 2006, the turkeys were flown to Disneyland, California, to demonstrate regional impartiality. Whether they go to Florida or California, after their display as the “happiest turkey on earth,” they are retired to a Disney animal ranch and later killed.

Domesticated turkeys are bred to have massive bodies such that their legs can barely support their weight; Photo Credit: Lee Ann L., Creative Commons Licensed on Flickr
Domesticated turkeys are bred to have massive bodies such that their legs can barely support their weight; Photo Credit: Lee Ann L., Creative Commons Licensed on Flickr

Fiskesjö packs many more fascinating insights into his brief article in Anthropology Today including why pardoning pigs doesn’t work and the complications of birds as US national symbolism—notably, turkeys, eagles, and hawks. While the article is not open access, the pamphlet is, and it is highly recommended reading either before, during, or after an upcoming feast.

Blogger’s update: this year, the White House has decided to cancel the trip to Disneyland. After a brief stay at the posh Willard Hotel, the turkeys will be taken in a horse-drawn carriage to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

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