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)