Like millions of other Americans, I will sit down and enjoy a hearty Thanksgiving meal and count my blessings; but in the back of my mind will sit the irony and hypocrisy of the celebration.
Most of us were taught an incomplete, if not inaccurate, portrayal of the first Thanksgiving, particularly of the event’s Native American
participants. History of the Thanksgiving holiday often sugar coats crimes committed against Natives by British and American white men in order to protect their image. The American Indians are oftentimes depicted as ‘ignorant’ and ‘non civilized’ in order to excuse any wrongdoing in by European invaders.
As a child, I didn’t know any Indians, and I certainly didn’t understand that the name “Indian” was based on a Columbus‘ mistake; thinking he had reached India when he had actually reached the Caribbean. Sadly, the images I saw on television is how I thought of Indians during my childhood, now I know better.
Unfortunately, African Americans have endured the same sort of irony, hypocrisy, negative depiction and imagery as Native Americans. Many white people in this country do not have regular contact with black people, so television often forms their opinion of who were are.
Fairy Tale Myth
The myth usually goes a little something like this:
Pilgrims came to America, in order to escape religious persecution in England. Living conditions proved difficult in the New World, but thanks to the friendly Indian, Squanto, the pilgrims learned to grow corn, and survive in unfamiliar lands. It wasn’t long before the Indians and the pilgrims became good friends. To celebrate their friendship and abundant harvest, Indians in feathered headbands joined together with the pilgrims and shared in a friendly feast of turkey and togetherness. Happy Thanksgiving. The End.
From this account, the unsuspecting child might assume a number of things. First, they may assume that pilgrims merely settled the New World, innocently, and as a persecuted people, they arrived to America with pure and altruistic intentions. Second, children might assume, and rightfully so, that Indians and pilgrims were friends, and that this friendship must have laid the framework for this “great American nation.”
Most history books portrayed Native Americans at the gathering as supporting players. They are depicted as nameless, faceless, generic “Indians” who merely shared a meal with the intrepid Pilgrims. The real story is much deeper, richer, and more nuanced. The Indians in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in this historic encounter, and they had been essential to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers’ first year.
Betrayal and Genocide
So let’s take a look at a different version of history; a fuller version:
One day, the Wampanoag people of the Eastern coast of the Americas noticed unfamiliar people in their homelands. These unfamiliar people were English pilgrims, coming to a new land which they dubbed “America,” in order to settle and create a new life.
The Wampanoag were initially uneasy with the settlers, but they eventually engaged in a shaky relationship of commerce and exchange. Also, in observing that the pilgrims nearly died from a harsh winter, the Wampanoag stepped in to help.
The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, eventually entered into agreements with the pilgrims, and, on behalf of the Wampanoag Nation, decided to be allies while each nation coexisted in the same space together. At one time, the Wampanoag and pilgrims shared in a meal of wildfowl, deer, and shellfish.
After Massasoit’s death, the Wampanoag nation became weakened as a result of disease contracted from the English. It wasn’t long before the pilgrims began tormenting surrounding tribes, burning entire villages to the ground, while indigenous men, women, and children lie sleeping.
Uneasy with the growing cruelty, greed, and arrogance of the new people in their homelands, the Wampanoag began to distrust the pilgrims. The pilgrims soon demanded that the Wampanoag submit to them, and give up all their weapons.
Shortly after, the pilgrims and Wampanoag were at war, and in the end, the pilgrims rose victorious. At the close of the war, the Wampanoag were nearly decimated, and the son of Chief Massasoit, Metacom, was killed by the pilgrims, dismembered, beheaded, and his head impaled on a spear outside of Plymouth. Metacom’s young son was sent to the West Indies as a slave, along with numerous other Wampanoag and surrounding tribes.
A day of Thanksgiving was declared, and to celebrate, the pilgrims kicked the heads of dead Indigenous peoples around like soccer balls.
As indigenous nations throughout America were continually betrayed by European settlers, killed by disease, germ warfare, hunted for bounties, sent overseas as slaves, and ultimately pushed out of their homelands and onto prison camps (now commonly known as reservations), few survived the depressing conditions. As a result of centuries of historical trauma, indigenous nations today have staggering rates of depression, mental health disparities, suicide, and deaths due to alcohol and drugs. Indigenous people continue to struggle to cope with historical trauma, and heal deeply imbedded wounds which stem directly from colonialism.
The Wampanoag were a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years. They had their own government, their own religious and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture. They were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life.
Like the Wampanoag, thousands of Native American nations and
communities across the continent had their own histories and
cultures. Native Americans have lost almost everything– their ancestral lands, dignity, and even their culture.
Before the Wampanoags met the English colonists, they
had interacted with other Native people politically,
socially, culturally, and economically. They had exchanged
goods and materials, as well as foods, food technologies, and
techniques for hunting, gathering, and food preparation. So when
the Wampanoag came into contact with the English, they already
had a long history of dealing with other cultures.
The first interaction with the Wampanoags in 1620
enabled the English colony’s survival. Although the English were
interlopers, the Wampanoags shared their land, food, and
knowledge of the environment. Early cooperation and respect
between the two groups were short-lived, however, as
white settlers wanted to expand their land holdings. This would be the history of most relationships between Natives and non-Natives for the next two hundred years.
Even so, Native American contributions continued to be
essential to the survival of Europeans. If not for the generosity
and knowledge of the Native peoples who met the explorers
Lewis and Clark during their travels in the Northwest from
1804 to 1806, their expedition probably would have ended in
Ultimately, Native encounters with Europeans resulted
in the loss of entire Native communities, traditional ways of life,
indigenous knowledge, and access to foods that had sustained
Native people for thousands of years. War, genocide, disease,
dispossession of lands, and deceitful federal policies
profoundly affected American Indian communities and their
While glossing over the very real consequences of colonialism, the mythical version of Thanksgiving creates a fairytale of land theft, betrayal, brutality, and genocide, virtually functioning to erase the very real and traumatic experiences of entire indigenous nations. This phenomena of whitewashing and outright erasure of indigenous history, in many instances, is not only inhumane and oppressive to the indigenous people, but it is also unfair to all Americans who stand to learn from rich and equally tragic history.
Without question, colonialism is great for the colonizer, and disastrous for the colonized. Colonization reduces entire populations, and leaves generational wounds that linger stubbornly for centuries. This is a lesson that all Americans must heed.
As a result of propagating the mythical version of Thanksgiving, American children and adults alike, become confused about history, and moreover the Thanksgiving lie outright prevents a collective American understanding of the contemporary struggles of Native American people today.
Excerpts from an Indian Country article were used in this post.