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Reclaiming Thanksgiving: Including Indigenous History & Perspectives

By Emma Pratt

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s The First Thanksgiving, 1621 (1912)

In most of North America, Thanksgiving (held the second week of October in Canada and the fourth week in November in the US) has become a day for family and friends to gather and enjoy a big meal together, express their gratitude, and engage in fun activities. Children dress up in feather headdresses (considered a form of cultural appropriation by many Indigenous people) and black hats made of construction paper, trace their hands to create a turkey to decorate, and learn about what’s been dubbed ‘The First Thanksgiving’. While some teachers have taken the initiative to teach the true history of relations between the pilgrims and Wampanoag in early colonial America, the myth of the Thanksgiving story still prevails in many schools across North America. This fable usually depicts the pilgrims and nameless “Indians” led by a Native of Patuxet, commonly called Squanto (who was known for being an interpreter and liaison between his people and the colonials) coming together for a fall harvest celebration. Squanto helped teach the English settlers how to live on the land and became indispensable to the people, often depicted in children’s books and history texts as “the friendly Indian”.


The first Thanksgiving meal in Plymouth did happen sometime in the fall of 1621, but there are only two official documented accounts of the event from the colonist perspective and it was not called “Thanksgiving”. The English Puritan founders of the Plymouth colony Edward Winslow and William Bradford both wrote accounts of the shared harvest, but due to neither writing more than a paragraph some historians have argued that the event had little historical significance.


The stark reality of the tenuous relationship between the Wampanoag and pilgrims in the early 17th century was not as wholesome as popular culture often depicts in cartoons. Some historians have contended that the first official celebration that was dubbed as Thanksgiving actually took place in 1637. Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop proclaimed a “Thanksgiving” during that year and held a large feast to celebrate the safe return of the colony’s men from what is today’s Mystic, Connecticut after having slaughtered over 700 Pequot men, women and children in the Pequot Massacre at Mystic Fort.


David Silverman argues in his book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving that the Wampanoag were in fact deeply harmed by the arrival of the English settlers and today they consider the arrival of the pilgrims as a day of mourning rather than one of gratitude. When the pilgrims (more accurately known as “Separatists” because they wanted to separate from the Church of England and form their own churches) arrived in 1620, the Wampanoag initiated an alliance with the arrivals primarily to protect themselves from their rivals and gain more territorial control while exchanging food for weaponry. Prior to the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoags in fact had a century of contact with Europeans and were driven to form an alliance largely out of desperation after seeing their population decimated by an epidemic.


The alliance was strained by the continued colonial expansion leading to the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land and by the spread of diseases such as smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, and bubonic plague that the population that had already been living in North America hadn’t yet been exposed to prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Tensions stemming from the colonists’ push to convert the Natives to Christianity and the resistance of people being assimilated into a culture foreign to them boiled over after the murder of John Sassamon in 1675. John Sassamon (also known as Wussausmon) was considered a “praying Indian” by colonists, a Christian convert and also served as an interpreter. Prior to the murder, John had warned the colony that King Philip (also known as Metacom or Metacomet who rose to power in 1662), the sachem to the Wampanoag people, was planning an attack. A jury of colonists and Wampanoag convicted three Wampanoag men of the murder and executed them by hanging on June 8, 1675. This enraged Philip, who the settlers accused of plotting Sassamon’s murder due to his harsh rhetoric against the colonists. Tensions boiled over between the Wampanoag and the colonists which sparked a bloody conflict waged by Philip that lasted fourteen months, eventually known as King Philip’s War. The battles united tribes such as Narragansett and Nipmuc against the colonists. These wars left dozens of settlements destroyed, hundreds of colonists dead, and thousands of Indigenous people murdered, severely wounded or sold into slavery in the Carribean. This war decimated the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and many of the other tribes, paving the way for further encroachment by the English which led to an end of the dominance of their nations in the region. It’s estimated that these battles led to the population of Indigenous peoples in New England reduced by as much as eighty percent.

Depiction of King Philip’s War 1675-1676

Thanksgiving was not always celebrated the same time in the early years of the colonization of the Americas. There were also no lavish feasts of the usual thanksgiving fare such as turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie until a national mythology was created around it in the mid-19th century when it was declared a national holiday. In 1863, in the midst of a bloody Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to recognize the last Thursday of November as “a day of Thanksgiving” while painting a flowery scene of family and reunion, which was most likely in an attempt to unify a deeply divided nation at war. In 1870, it was made an official holiday in the US and Canada followed suit in 1879.


Many Indigenous people, allies and advocates have taken to protesting on Thanksgiving. For Natives, the day is not one of rejoicing, but one of sorrow for the slaughter of their ancestors and theft of their homeland. Kisha James of Lakota and Wampanoag descent has grown up participating in the National Day of Mourning every year in November. The National Day of Mourning was organized by her grandfather Wamsutta Frank James (a Wampanoag elder), after being asked to give a speech honoring the Plymouth pilgrims by their descendants in 1970. Due to his speech where he refused to depict the pilgrims in a positive light, he was requested to give an edited version. He refused this and instead met in solidarity with supporters at Coles Hill in Plymouth where the first Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day took place. Many spend the day fasting to remember the hardship and genocide faced by their ancestors. It’s a day of remembrance and a day to unify Indigenous peoples.


“The Day Of Mourning is a time for us Native Americans to voice our stories and views because, for the rest of the year, it seems that we’re often marginalized or aren’t featured in the media. It’s a day for a celebration of Indigenous people, but it's also a day of mourning the loss of our ancestors and the loss of our country and lands,” a 17-year-old Kisha James told Refinery21 in 2016.


“Try to divorce your Thanksgiving celebrations from the Thanksgiving mythology,” Kisha said in a discussion with WBUR-FM Boston last year. “So no more pilgrims and Indians, no more teaching your children about the first Thanksgiving as we learn it in public school where it was a friendly meal.”

National Day of Mourning, 2017

National Day of Mourning Plaque

In recent years, more educators have opted to give their students a version of the true history around Thanksgiving rather than the romanticized, whitewashed, and often misleading account of Natives and settlers joining hands for a meal. The majority of educators feel an increased duty to teach Thanksgiving in a historically accurate and fun way that is culturally appropriate. In doing so, the origins of the holiday can be properly addressed and an opportunity is presented to teach about Indigenous history and tribal traditions.


Dr. Star Yellowfish, Director of Native American Student Services for for Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) and a member of the Keetowah Cherokee, encourages educators to teach Thanksgiving in a more meaningful way by replacing the generic terms “pilgrims and indians” with the more historically accurate terms, Separatists and Wampanoag, including the perspective of the Wampanoag not just that of the English settlers and explaining their importance in keeping the settlers alive, and researching tribes in your area and inviting them to give a lesson. Additional resources and Thanksgiving lesson plans from an Indigenous perspective can be found at https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/native-educators-say-thanksgiving-lessons-can-be-accurate


In a Medium article published in 2018, educator, urban historian, and assistant professor Lindsey Passenger Wieck compiled a list with the help of other historians which contains resources for families and schools to use to deconstruct the common myths around Thanksgiving, teach about Indingeous peoples, the roles they played in colonial America, and their contemporary presence in 21st century North America. The list also includes sample letters for parents to express concern about stereotypical or problematic classroom activities that perpetuate historical inaccuracies and suggest resources for their children’s teachers to use to include Indigenous perspectives in lessons and activities. See: Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools, https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/decolonizing-thanksgiving-a-toolkit-for-combatting-racism-in-schools-5d4e3023a2f8


Of additional note are the resources provided by National Museum of the America Indian, which provides culturally sensitive activities and resources related to Thanksgiving for grades K-12 and can be used to address incomplete or imperialist narratives. Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving: https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/resources/Rethinking-Thanksgiving-Celebrations-Native-Perpsectives


Join our MMIW Campaign https://www.nonviolenceny.org/mmiw


Sources

The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue


Primary Sources For “The First Thanksgiving” At Plymouth

King Philip’s War


6 Thanksgiving Myths and the Wampanoag Side of the Story


The Thanksgiving Myth


The Invention of Thanksgiving


‘I Was Teaching a Lot of Misconceptions.’ The Way American Kids Are Learning About the 'First Thanksgiving' Is Changing


For Native Peoples, Thanksgiving Isn't A Celebration. It's A National Day Of Mourning


For Me, Thanksgiving Is A “Day Of Mourning”





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