Thanksgiving: Understanding the history behind "our" "traditions" in the U.S.

November is national Native American heritage month, I always find it ironic that this happens almost immediately after halloween - where several individuals STILL celebrate by dressing up in Native “costumes” ( It’s almost as if it was intentional - like we will only “GIVE” you the month right after halloween and the month that incorporates “Thanksgiving.” We will “GIVE” you the month where we will celebrate you but only in the ways that we want to - and why not with thanksgiving.

I am sure I am not the only Native person who has encountered a number of problematic “educational” activities where students are being asked to “re-enact” the thanksgiving “story” - with half representing pilgrims and another half “representing” Indians. ( These harmful activities only continue to perpetuate stereotypes and inaccurate narratives of Native people. For example, one of my college classmates shared with me one of her narratives she was taught as a young child - she explained to me that she believed that Indian’s only came out during the thanksgiving “holiday” - like we were some kind of ornament or decorations to adorn people’s houses in November.

While this day has evolved and some families and communities celebrate gratitude, I think its always helpful to understand the history behind "our" "traditions" in the United States as most often than not these "traditions" were based on colonial ideologies, the same ideologies that sought to subjugate communities for capitalist gain and power. These colonist ideologies continue to misrepresent Native people - with the age old story of "Pilgrims" and "Natives" coming together in harmony - when in actuality these narratives promote harmful and inaccurate stereotypical notions of Native people -1) that we are all the same and not from different Nations, 2) that we are not modern people living in a modern world, and 3) that the relationship with the colonist was not violent nor harmful, amongst a number of others.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker - published a book in 2016 All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 other Myth about Native Americans. In their book they wrote a chapter called “Myth 4: Thanksgiving proves the Indians Welcomed the Pilgrims” - they offer similar insights about Thanksgiving.

“Their concealment within a simplistic story inevitably depicts a convoluted reality about the Indigenous peoples who played crucial roles in both events (myth Columbus and story of Thanksgiving) and it presents an exaggerated valorization about the settler’s role.  The result is a collective amnesia that fuels the perpetuation of Native American stereotypes, playing out over and over again in the classrooms and textbooks of American schoolchildren, generation after generation. This only masks the complexities of the relationships between settlers and Indians, and thus the founding of the United States.” (p.32)

They also offer 6 more historically accurate insights about “Thanksgiving:”

  1. Thanksgiving gives the impression that Mayflower pilgrims were the 1st European to settle on the land - in actuality Europeans had been traveling to North American since 1607 - settling the Jamestown colony.

  2. New Plymouth ( or the site of this fictional "Thanksgiving”) was called Patuxet - the ancestral land of the Wampanoag (Pokahoket) people.

  3. Pilgrims arrived in depth of winter and food was a concern, as a result Native homes and graves were robbed of food and other items.

  4. Squanto, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, then sent to England and learned English, was sent by Massasoit (head Wampanoag Sachem or leader), Sagamore to be a liaison between the Natives and colonists. Squanto taught the pilgrims Native planting techniques which ensured a bountiful harvest they would have in the fall.

  5. In 1621 a formal treaty was made between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims of Plymouth colony outlining relationships of peace and mutual protection.

  6. The concept of “Thanksgiving” was not new to either group - the English had an ancient customs of harvest festivals. Spiritual ceremonials of gratitude had always been central cultural attributes among Indigenous people who believed in relationship of reciprocity.

Below are some things I have came across that provided some additional insight, I am sure there are others as well:

The “real” thanksgiving story…/uncovering-true-hi…/

"We know what we’re taught in mainstream media and in schools is made up. What’s the Wampanoag version of what happened?

Yeah, it was made up. It was Abraham Lincoln who used the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together. He was trying to calm things down during the Civil War when people were divided. It was like a nice unity story."
Everything you know about Thanksgiving is WRONG - Franchesca Ramsey

Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth

“Native American people who first encountered the “pilgrims” at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts play a major role in the imagination of American people today. Contemporary celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday focus on the idea that the “first Thanksgiving” was a friendly gathering of two disparate groups—or even neighbors—who shared a meal and lived harmoniously. In actuality, the assembly of these people had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and an effort at rarely achieved, temporary peaceful coexistence. Although Native American people have always given thanks for the world around them, the Thanksgiving celebrated today is more a combination of Puritan religious practices and the European festival called Harvest Home, which then grew to encompass Native foods.”

Teacher Resources…/teaching-thanksgiving-in-a-soci…

"School Thanksgiving activities often mean dressing children in “Indian” headdresses and paper feathers as they sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” or “Mr. Turkey.” Some teachers might even ask their students to draw themselves as Native Americans from the past, complete with feather-adorned headbands and buckskin clothing. These activities might seem friendly and fun, unless you are aware of how damaging this imagery is to perceptions of contemporary Native peoples. This imagery contributes to the indoctrination of American youth into a false narrative that relegates indigenous peoples to the past and turns real human beings into costumes for a few days a year. It’s not just bad pedagogy; it’s socially irresponsible."

Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools

“Stereotypical and racist portrayals of Native peoples fill U.S. elementary schools each November as students encounter historically-inaccurate portrayals of Native peoples in arts & crafts, books and lessons about a shared Thanksgiving meal, and songs and plays with hand-crafted headdresses and vests. But these activities are problematic, because they depict Native peoples in an ahistorical way and perpetuate myths about colonial encounters.”

National Museum of the American Indian - American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving

 “Each November educators across the country teach their students about the First Thanksgiving, a quintessentially American holiday. They try to give students an accurate picture of what happened in Plymouth in 1621 and explain how that event fits into American history. Unfortunately, many teaching materials give an incomplete, if not inaccurate, portrayal of the first Thanksgiving, particularly of the event’s Native American participants.”

Before we all get together with families this Thursday take a moment to learn more about the real history behind thanksgiving. Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga) in Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future offers that Native Nations “have thanksgiving twelve months a year.”

“In the spring when the sap runs through the tress we have ceremonies, thanksgiving. For the maple, chief of the trees, leader of all the trees, thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for all the trees. Planting thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for the strawberries, first fruit. Thanksgiving for the bees, the corn, green corn, thanksgiving. Harvest thanksgiving. Community, process, chiefs, clan mothers, everybody is there. Families are there. How do you inspire respect for something? By giving thanks, by doing it.”(p.25)

The American Dream - The Ultimate Facade

This week I had an off-site meeting at our nearby arboretum. During one of the presentations, the facilitator expressed how "nice it feels to be here" - presumably they were referring to "beauty" of the plant life surrounding the room we were in. I couldn't help but utterly disagree with the facilitator, this place did not feel nice - it felt like a grand facade. A facade working to eliminate and erase the Native plants that once lived there. In the place of the Native plants that lived there - now lived plants foreign to the land. In order for these new plants to prosper on this foreign land, a great care of focus on their needs was required for their survival. This reminded me all too well of the birth of America. A place founded on institutionalized systems of domination used to socialize "Americans" to accept one's place in the colonial hierarchy. A hierarchy focusing on the needs and survival of upper class white America. Just like the Arboretum took to caring for the needs of these new plants, America took to caring for the needs of upper class white America, under the guise of the "American Dream," the ultimate facade.

The rhetoric of the "American Dream" offers the idea that upward mobility is both possible and limitless, which Bush and Bush (2015) in their Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie, or Reality argued “provided just the rationale to garner loyalty to ideological rules and principles of capitalism and white supremacy. This justification implied that those who succeed are worthy, while those who do not succeed are not worthy or deserving” (p.95). Just like the plants at the Arboretum, these new foreign plants became much more worthy and deserving to inhabit this landscape, because they "made it" - they worked hard to achieve this new found  livelihood. Never mind the care and focus the Arboretum gave to these plants survival, never mind the Arboretum's institutionalized support of these new plants. Now years after planting and caring for these seeds from all areas of the earth, this place know becomes a "melting pot" of a variety of plant life.  But who decided which of those plants belonged and which of them didn't? 

The "American Dream" has convinced us that to belong is to affirm one's status in the United States as "making it," particularly making it in under the ideological rules and principles of capitalism and white supremacy.  Instead of our statuses being associated to our familial lineages or geographic location, it is consumed with "what we do" and most often times than not but not always "what we do to make money." In this context, we have convinced ourselves that "what we do" is "who we are" - and that "what we do" is indicative of our worth. Never mind the institutionalized  systems that support the ideological rules and principles of capitalism and white supremacy. Never mind the care and focus these systems gave to upholding these rules and principles. 

The "American Dream" is nothing but a facade used to socialize "Americans" to accept our places in the colonial hierarchy. If we are wanting to liberate ourselves from the years of oppression and violence, we must look inward and "free ourselves of the myth of America" starting with the "American Dream."

The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here. Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours (America) is no exception.

James Baldwin - Nobody Knows My Name  (p.142) 

Native: The Antithesis of being American

Lately, every time someone talks about being "American," I get a very visceral feeling - something about American nationhood makes me feel uneasy. Its more than my own conflicting feelings of being Native, allegiant to my own tribal nation and "technically" being American, allegiant to the United States. It's this feeling of opposition, this feeling of hostility to a nation that was founded on the principles where my ancestors needed to be erased. As I immersed myself in ideas of colonialism and the 19th/20th century United States citizenship/education policies it occurred to me that being Native in the United States was/is the antithesis of being American.

History Professor, Phillip Deloria in John and Kevin Little's More than a Word Film - describes two moments in American history where Natives needed to be erased or dehumanized in order for America/Americans to exist. 

"...The first is the moment of the American Revolution, where Americans, American colonists have to figure out culturally and in terms of their identity, their social identity, they figure out ways in which they can stop being British colonist and start being American and the fundamental claim they make is that they are Indigenous to the continent, this is what happens in settler societies, so they are Indigenous to the continent so they take old European rituals practices and beliefs and they graph them onto new symbol systems around Indians (refer back to my "Savage or Nah" post) and all of the sudden they create meaning for themselves they create an identity as being Aboriginal and Indigenous to the continent and that lets them speak in oppositional ways to the British government and in many ways, I think to build a cultural formation, that allows them to create a Revolution and rebellion, so Indians are wrapped up into the fiber of America from the very very beginning...

In order for the colonists to separate themselves from British rule they needed to be "aboriginal" to the Americas and do to that, the people who where already there needed to be erased.   

"...then there is a second moment at the turn of the 20th century when Americans are confronted with modernity and the sort of struggles around that and what does it mean to be an industrial place full of immigrants and the frontier is closed and there is all kinds of ways which they feel a sense of crisis, what gives them reassurance - a refiguring of this kind of Indian play that they do, where they can grab on to something that is authentic, that is of the land and that is anti-modern and gives them a sense of authenticity."

In order for America to be America, it needed to erase the Native people who already occupied this continent, it needed to erase everything Native - our cultures, languages, identities, etc., then it needed us to be anti-modern, functioning as a mere historical figure whose only role was helping to shape the "American" story. The impact of this is still felt today especially in our American institutions, of democracy and education. They both have been created, sustained, and worked for the betterment of this "great nation state." The United States is a nation defined and formed by the genocide of Native American communities. Colonial institutions like democracy and education inflicted those acts of genocide and went to any length to destroy and replace Native American culture and way of life. Though amazingly resilient, Native communities endured tremendous suffering and gave rise to the hardships that Native communities continue to experience today.    

Just like at the turn of the 20th century, America is still trying to understand what makes us American, grasping at any idea that may unify U.S. But until we can face our complicated and complex history we are bound to repeat and reproduce. 

"History is not the past, it is the present, we carry our history with us, we are our history, if we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals." James Baldwin - I Am Not Your Negro   

Savage or nah?

"The idea of savagery undoubtedly enabled white American's to exercise multiple kinds of power over multiple kinds of Indians. Yet the existence of so many variations on the savage theme also suggests that stereotype might function better as a descriptive shorthand than as an analytical tool. A stereotype, we might say, is a simplified and generalized expectation - savagery, in this case - that comes to rest in an image, text, or utterance. It is a sound bite, a crudely descriptive connection between power, expectation, and representation." 

Philip J. Deloria, Indians in unexpected places, 2004, p.9

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In the past few years "savage" has become a popular word to use - so much so that on Instagram 8.6million (yeah MILLION) pictures were tagged with the hashtag #savage. The posts range from selfies of people to  inappropriate and most often offensive posts by people who the Urban dictionary refers to as "some who does not care about the consequences of his or her actions."  There is even multiple online stores that sells "savage" merchandise ( Popular culture has really embraced this word and as result attached new meanings to it but for me I cannot help but think about Phil's quote above and how it was used as a tool to exercise power over Native people.  


Every time I hear someone use the word "savage" - I feel a cringe in my stomach. I think about how extensively this terminology was used to refer to my ancestors, as a way to dehumanize them and delegitimize their cultural knowledge and ways of knowing. I think about the imagery in these pictures - imagery that attached a particular stereotype to ALL Native people - with "savage" being the common denominator..."savage warrior," "noble savage," etc. "Savage" became synonymous with Native people, so much so that the United States referred to Native people in the declaration of independence as "Merciless Indian Savages."


Not only did this dehumanize Native people to animalistic like beings, it also imposed a sameness onto all Native people - erasing the beautiful diversity of all of our Native cultures, nations, and communities. Ironically, as the use of #savage in popular culture increased so did the cultural appropriation of Native culture (see Native Appropriations - "Valentino didn't learn anything" for a good recap). Ironic because at one point in history being "savage" was considered to be demeaning and now being "savage" and appropriating "Native" culture is almost being sought after by popular culture.  While no different than any word that has been used to historically disempower and disenfranchise a particular group, I have been incredibly intrigued at how readily people use this term now - without understanding its' ties to the oppression of Native communities.