thanksgiving, truth
Depictions of the "first Thanksgiving" — like this 1912 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris — don't necessarily capture the complex history of Thanksgiving. (Image: Archive Art Image by Artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

The Truth You May Not Know About Thanksgiving

On Thursday, Nov. 26, many Native Americans and their allies across the country will observe the 51st National Day of Mourning. While most Americans will sit down to Thanksgiving dinners — albeit (hopefully) smaller ones than in years past due to COVID-19 — this counter-observance is designed as an ongoing protest to the sanitized narrative of the holiday told in school textbooks and TV specials. Instead of gorging themselves on a massive meal, observers will remember the killings of Indigenous people and tribes that began when European settlers reached the Americas.

The image of buckle-clad Pilgrims sitting down to a turkey dinner with friendly Native Americans are more products of Charlie Brown specials than actual history. Although there are nuggets of truth within this heartwarming myth, reality is much more fraught.

In 1620, the first Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts — but their journey across the Atlantic wasn’t primarily in search for religious freedom. The New York Times reported that many had fled England in the 17th century to escape religious persecution — but they had already found refuge in Holland. This group of Puritan Christians referred to themselves as separatists (the term “pilgrim” didn’t exist until the late 1800s), and their main goal was to establish a religious theocracy in the “New World.” In short, like most Europeans who arrived in the Americas before and after them, they were seeking money.

Squanto, a member of the Patuxet people from the Wampanoag tribe, did indeed help the settlers through their first winter in Plymouth by serving as a translator teaching them effective ways to plant corn and finding the best locations to fish. Before meeting the Pilgrims, the man, whose real name was Tisquantum, was captured by the English in 1614 and later sold as a slave in Spain. He returned to his home in 1619 to find the majority of his Patuxet tribe killed by a smallpox epidemic brought by European colonists.

In 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the Smithsonian notes the Wampanoags did not reject them, mostly because they were hoping they’d offer increased protection against a nearby rival tribe, the Narragansetts. Squanto knew English from his time spent in England and was a helpful translator and diplomat between the settlers and Native tribes.

But the way the Pilgrims and the other settlers in the area thanked the Wampanoag for their hospitality and alliance was not with a turkey dinner — it was with disease, massacres and resource exploitation. The resulting tensions ultimately led to war between the Native Americans and the different groups of settlers on the Native land now known as New England.

King Philip’s War broke out in the 1670s after 50 years of continued tension as more English settlers arrived and established the New England Confederation. The war was named for the Wampanoag chief Metacom (who went by the English name Philip or King Philip), who led the rebellion against the Europeans. It left the Wampanoag nearly wiped out — and the settlers in power.

The origins of the first “Thanksgiving” are also murky. There is evidence of a three-day-long feast the Pilgrims held in 1621 after a successful harvest, but multiple reports have contested whether Native Americans were actually in attendance. (Also, turkey and pie were definitely not on the menu.) According to historians, feasts like these were commonplace in English culture so the importance of a single, “special” celebration has also been called into question.

Another theory suggests the first “Thanksgiving” may have been in celebration of a massacre of native peoples — in 1637, the settlers attacked members of the Pequot tribe in modern-day Connecticut during the Pequot War, killing more than 500 tribe members — but that idea has also been widely disputed.

Whatever the true origin of the fall celebratory feast might have been, Thanksgiving as we know it was not an official holiday until 1863 when President Lincoln declared it a federally observed occurrence to mark a number of victories that took place during the Civil War.

The National Day of Mourning, observed in opposition to Thanksgiving, was first held in 1970 when Native Americans and allies gathered in Plymouth to protest and remember their ancestors. “Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture,” the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), which organizes these gatherings, has stated. “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

Though it began centuries ago, the effects of colonization on Indigenous Peoples still remain today. Indigenous communities across the country and continent experience systemic injustices such as lack of clean water, land and resource exploitation. Indigenous women are also disappearing and being murdered at alarming rates.

For many, Thanksgiving is a family tradition, a time to see loved ones and a kickoff to the holiday season. But being aware of the true history behind the day — and how these events play into other aggressions against Native people — is the first step toward being an ally for Indigenous rights. Many advocates advise concerned Americans looking to make a difference to consider taking some time to learn about the diversity of Native culture and support some of the causes Indigenous Peoples are fighting for, including women’s rights, land rights and equal access to education.

The UAINE’s Day of Mourning observance will also be available to stream at noon EST via the their website and the UAINE FaceBook group.

This year especially, as Thanksgiving already looks different from years past, consider beginning a new tradition of learning about Indigenous history, culture and issues.

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