In past years, as the middle of November comes around and the leaves on the trees turn into their final shade of auburn red, children everywhere clutter on fuzzy rugs in American school classrooms to learn about the First Thanksgiving. That Native American tribes inhabited the East Coast of the United States. The area surrounding the First Thanksgiving site, now known as southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, had been the home of the Wampanoag people for over 12,000 years. The Plymouth Colony, a group of English Protestants, left their homes in Europe during 1620 and sailed on the Mayflower for 66 days, in hopes of religious freedom in "The New World." Accidentally the 101 women, children, and men landed in what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and soon met Native Americans on the land. Samoset, a leader of the Abekani people and Tisquantum (better known as Squanto), helped the settlers grow crops, get accustomed to the land, and taught them how to use fish for fertilizer. In a year's time, the Native Americans and the English hunted and gathered for a harvest celebration, and for three days, the English and native men, women, and children ate together. All indulged in a feast of deer, corn, shellfish, and other roasted meat.
Most of what I told you in the paragraph above and the story our school system and society has spun about the First Thanksgiving is far from the truth. The world has drilled the message of Thanksgiving as a "kumbaya and happy feast" of two opposite peoples. Therefore, it is as if we have to swim across the whole Atlantic Ocean to find out the holiday's true origin! As children, of course, we didn't know better and floated on these Thanksgiving myths. We happily ran around classrooms in paper-cut out pilgrim hats and Native American headdresses. Our parents, grandparents, and most of the world (besides Native Americans) have accepted these misleading stories for far too long.
As you sit around your dining room table today and pass around the gravy boat for mashed potatoes, slice into juicy ham and connect to the family Zoom (because with Covid cases on the rise, I hope you aren't traveling !), it's essential to understand the history of this holiday. We must understand the lives and tales that have been forgotten by America because of it.
First off, what is the Thanksgiving myth?
I can not put it any better than David Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University and author of This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he states, "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."
Thanksgiving is another sad example of people of color getting shoved out of the picture so white saviors can take the spotlight.
What are some of the most significant inaccuracies in the First Thanksgiving story?
One of the biggest misconceptions is Native American history begins when the English settlers arrive. People had lived in the Americas for roughly 12,000 years, and as some Native artifacts suggest, since the beginning of time.
Doesn't it strike you as odd that teachers only ever taught us about Native Americans concerning white colonists, in history class? From Christopher Columbus "discovering" the "New World" to Native Americans and colonists working together to grow food, The Trail of Tears, and more. Native Americans had been thriving on their own for centuries before white colonists disrupted their lifestyle and today, remain resilient despite little aid or attention.
Native Americans' story doesn't start with English arrival, and it doesn't end there either. For too long, America has skipped to chapter 25 in the "book" of Native Americans and disregarded the other 100 chapters of their journey.
Secondly, the arrival of the Mayflower is not the first-contact episode people paint it out to be. The Wampanoags had a century of contact with Europeans, a bloody and revolting experience nonetheless. At least two or more Wampanoags spoke English when the Pilgrims arrived, most notably Squanto aka "the Pilgrims' very first friend." As a member of the Patuxet, a band of the
Wampanoag tribe, Squanto did act as translator for the Pilgrims, helped them trade with other native people, and showed them the most effective planting methods, as schools taught us. But his full story with Europeans isn't as happy-go-lucky.
He was captured by the English in 1614 and later sold into slavery in Spain, explained Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth. He spent several years in England, where he learned English and returned to New England in 1619 to discover his entire Patuxet tribe wiped out. They all died from smallpox. He met the Pilgrims that very next year.
How did the Great Dinner become the focal point of our modern Thanksgiving holiday?
For a long time, English people had been celebrating Thanksgivings that didn’t involve feasting—instead, they involved fasting, prayer, and supplication to God. We think of the First Thanksgiving as some monumental event when it wasn’t such a big deal to the natives and Pilgrims. Similar feasts had happened elsewhere for years. This was no new tradition.
Historians aren’t exactly sure either if Thanksgiving happened annually after 1621. It wasn’t until years later that the holiday picked up again.
In 1769 a group of Pilgrim descendants residing in Plymouth felt their cultural authority was slipping away as New England faded into the shadows. An increasing number of colonies popped up, and the early republic was growing. So they sprinkled the “glittering idea” that Pilgrims were the founding fathers of America.
Twenty years later, President George Washington tried to start a holiday of Thanksgiving, but it had nothing to do with “natives and Pilgrims.” Instead, the country looked at it as a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” (The phrase “Merciless Savage Indians” is written into the Declaration of Independence, so we know how the founders of America viewed the Indigenous Peoples of this land.)
Thanksgiving wasn’t made into an official holiday until 1863, after writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, persuaded President Lincoln that the Thanksgiving holiday was necessary and could help heal the divided nation. The holiday was attractive throughout the late 19th century, as there was an enormous amount of anxiety and distress over immigration. The white Protestants of the United States wanted to establish their cultural superiority as an influx of European Catholics, and Jewish people entered the country. As Silverman says, what better way to assert this authority than “to create this national founding myth around the Pilgrims and the Indians inviting them to take over the land?”
Did the Wampanoag initially like the settlers?
One can say the natives had a cordial relationship with the settlers. There is no doubt that Wampanoag leader Ousamequin reached out to the Pilgrims at Plymouth and wanted an alliance. But it’s not because he wanted to be best friends with them. It’s because his people were dying left and right from epidemic diseases, and Ousamequin saw the English as a potential aid to help them against his tribal rivals.
Many of the Wampanoags did not like the English and wanted to align with the Narragansett tribe to get rid of them. These new settlers had been raiding the coast, robbing food supplies, enslaving natives for years, and had overstayed their welcome.
If not, why did the Wampanoags work with them and give them the land?
Society underplays Native American's intelligence. It is a common misconception that the natives in Massachuttes had no sense of 'property' and that they let Pilgrims sweep their land out from under them. But that is a ridiculous and disrespectful assumption.
Native tribes did practice hunting and gathering and might have moved to different settlements, but most natives did not roam the land and had healthy interdependent communities. Every village had its own "distinct mix of farming and foraging" and traded with one another to make the most out of Mother Nature. Each community was always "joining and splitting like quicksilver in a fluid pattern within its bounds," writes Kathleen J. Bragdon, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary.
One of the defining moments between the English Settlers and natives of New England was King Philip's War — also known as the First Indian War. Historians disagree with the intentions of the war. Were the native people, led by Metacomet, or Philip as the English call him, plotting a multi-tribal uprising against the English? Some historians think that idea was merely a figment of the paranoid English settler's imagination. But others like Silverman believe that documented meetings of tribal leaders meeting with one another (even though they hated each other), the terrifying frenzy English settlers exhibited, and other warning signs point otherwise. "It all adds up to me," he writes.
However, Native Americans were unsuccessful in this war, because guess what — they didn't consider themselves as "Indians"! That's an identity they would come to learn — and loathe, due to their struggles with white countrymen.
Imagine if you thought of yourself as a blueberry all these years, and you were proud of your identity when one day some farmer slaps a "Hi My Name Is Strawberry" sticker on your forehead, and now all of a sudden you are a strawberry! What the heck, right?! That is precisely what colonists did to Native Americans.
Roughly 600 Native American tribes covered the United States. Most American maps don't depict these groups and their history. So when 34-year-old self-taught-map maker Aaron Carapella created his own Tribal Nations Map, he said in an interview with NPR, "I think a lot of people get blown away by, 'Wow, there were a lot of tribes, and they covered the whole country!' You know this is Indian land."
Tribes are all unique from one another, and like any other community, their interest is often in the focus of their own tribe. Which meant in the 1600s, cutting deals with colonial powers to combat their native rivals was ideal. It was difficult for native tribes to come together because they had never been seen as similar people and "the others" until now.
Ok, spare me some childhood hope. There have to be some parts of the story that are true … right?
Yes, there are some parts about the origin story of Thanksgiving that are true. The timeline is relative. The Mayflower did bring Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England, in 1620, and they landed at what is now Plymouth, Mass., where they created a colony. But the Pilgrims didn’t come to North America in hopes of religious freedom. It was quite the opposite. The Pilgrims already had religious freedom in Holland, where they arrived in the early 17th century. Like any other group, Pilgrims came to America to make money, says James W. Loewen, a sociologist and the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” to The New York Times.
“They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did,” he said. “That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”
Lastly, in 1621, the Pilgrims did have a feast to celebrate a successful harvest, and the Wampanoags came. Though there is debate if there even were natives at the First Thanksgiving. But it is widely believed there was some sort of mingling over the course of those days.
Was there even turkey at this feast ?!
I hate to burst your bubble, but no. There are only two remaining documents that reference the First Thanksgiving meal, and neither mention Turkey. In one of the papers, William Bradford, the governor Winslow mentions, “And besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.” Though it might have been possible that colonists and Native Americans cooked wild turkey, Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, told Smithsonian, she suspects wild goose or duck was the Wildfowl of choice. Wall, who has studied cookbooks and descriptions of gardens from the period, and archaeological remains such as pollen samples that might clue her into what the colonists were growing, also believes swan and passenger pigeons were available as well.
Guess what. There wasn’t any pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce either! So my two favorites made no appearance at that first feast because colonists did not have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts. It would be another 50 years before an Englishman wrote about boiling cranberries and sugar into a “Sauce to eat with. . . Meat.” No type of potato either. White potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, had yet to arrive in North America.
For now, we do know a couple of things that people ate at the First Thanksgiving. “Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or porridge, was there. Venison was there,” says Wall. “These are absolutes.” Along with native corn, squash, pumpkin, and beans, the colonists and Native Americans weren’t eating too bad ;)
Now that I know the history behind Thanksgiving, what can I do apart from stuff my mouth with my mom's mashed potatoes!
Well, you've already taken a step by reading my article! It is exceptionally harmful to adopt the mindset that Native Americans willingly gave their land to colonists who invaded their homes and destroyed a built history. It makes Americans blind to the privilege they have even existing in this country, while today's Native Americans have to feel like they never belong when they are the Indiegnous people of this land.
Now that you understand the real history of Thanksgiving, there are a couple of things you can do to make native voices heard, seen, and remembered.
Learn whose land you are on by visiting the Native Lands App. It is an interactive map about your area's Indigenous Peoples and languages.
Celebrate and Listen to Native American voices (read their books, read their essays). See #NativeReadsCampaign, Amazon's Best Seller Native American Children's Books, video We Still Live Here: Black Indians of Wampanoag and African Heritage, essay The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday, and Black, Native American and Fighting for Recognition in Indian Country
Decolonize your dinner. See The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday, Vice article with chef Nephi Craig, a half-Navajo member of the White Mountain Apache tribe of Whiteriver, Arizona, : How to Decolonize Your Thanksgiving Dinner and Seven Native American Chefs Share Thanksgiving Recipes
When you say what you're grateful for around the dinner table this Thanksgiving Day, make sure you say how thankful you are for Native Americans. They were forced to give up their lives, homes, and everything they knew so you could have this holiday.