The History of Thanksgiving

tent with flag on fabric
group of people making toast
Photo by fauxels on

How many of us grew up learning that the first Thanksgiving happened like this?

Smithsonian Magazine almost perfectly sums up what most of us learned in school about Thanksgiving:

“The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.” (Smithsonian Magazine, 2019).

This narrative is mostly false because history began long before the English set foot on American soil. At the time of the Mayflower, the Wampanoag people had already had a long, bloody history with the English, mostly centering around slave raiding. There were also a few Wampa

noag people who had been to Europe and back, and spoke English.

While it is true that Wampanoag leaders reached out to the English to form an alliance, it wasn’t because they wanted to be friendly. Tribal leader Ousamequin had lost most of his people to disease and rival tribes… not exactly the heartwarming shared meal we learned about in elementary school.

When the English came to America, they brought with them bacteria and illnesses the Natives to which the Native Americans had no resistance. This led to the deaths of thousands of Natives and cleared the way for European Conquest.

Squanto is largely regarded as a hero who helped the Pilgrims survive. History makes a huge deal out of Squanto knowing English and communicating with the Pilgrims, but does not mention HOW he knew English. He had actually been kidnapped and taken to Europe and enslaved, before returning to his people.

I believe we owe it to our ancestors and future generations to stop teaching the false origins of Thanksgiving and teach the truth. Thanksgiving didn’t originate from the love fest we learned about. European colonization was actually anything but peaceful- it was bloody, devastating and horrific.

So, how can we celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that respects Native cultures?

  1. We can first learn REAL history. Stop teaching the false narrative and learn and teach the truth.
  2. Learn whose lands you are on. Native Lands App can help you with this!
  3. Educate yourself. I recommend watching the History Channel’s “The REAL Story of Thanksgiving” and also “Captured 1614.”
  4. Celebrate Native American Heritage by reading books by Native American authors.

My hope with this blog post is that people will learn and will deprogram some of the things that have been ingrained in our minds for years. It’s amazing what can change when we are willing to learn.

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