“The path to reconciliation starts with honest acknowledgement of our past, with open eyes, and open hearts for a better future. It is time for us to be in good relation with one another. We can do that by learning and unlearning how to give thanks in a good way."
― Matika Wilbur & Adrienne Keene from All My Relations Podcast
The True Story of Thanksgiving
This week, back in elementary school, we’d make “Indian” headdresses and pilgrim hats from construction paper, we’d all sit around a table together, and the teachers would pass down the myth of Thanksgiving...
You know the one I mean. The friendly but savage “Indians” welcomed the civilized but persecuted pilgrims arriving from Europe in 1620 with open arms, handing over their land in a bloodless and amiable deal so these hero white folks could build a great nation, a nation of freedom and opportunity. To celebrate this deal, the “Indians” and the pilgrims shared a great feast, and each year, we celebrate this national holiday to mark this coming together.
How utterly ridiculous. This is colonialism’s revisionist history - a story created by the conquerors to erase the conquered and cast themselves as heroes. It is a more palatable tale, meant to keep white folks comfortable and reinforce the so-called American ideology of Manifest Destiny.
The “Indians” were actually the Wampanoag people. When the pilgrims invaded, the Wampanoag had been engaged with Europeans for at least a century, years of bloodshed, disease, and violent slave raiding already informing their understanding of the colonists. The Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, sought an alliance with the English Pilgrims against the rival people, the Narragansetts, at first, but this alliance quickly dissolved into one of the most horrific colonial / Native wars recorded (known as the Great Narragansett War or King Philip’s War). This war devastated the Wampanoag people, and today, the Wampanoag consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning, grieving the decimation caused by the Pilgrims’ entry into their homeland.
How did history become myth?
According to an interview with David Silverman, author of This Land is Their Land, the myth-making began in 1769 and continued on after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863:
"For quite a long time, English people had been celebrating Thanksgivings that didn’t involve feasting—they involved fasting and prayer and supplication to God. In 1769, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth felt like their cultural authority was slipping away as New England became less relevant within the colonies and the early republic, and wanted to boost tourism. So, they started to plant the seeds of this idea that the pilgrims were the fathers of America. What really made it the story is that a publication mentioning that dinner published by the Rev. Alexander Young included a footnote that said, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England.” People picked up on this footnote. The idea became pretty widely accepted, and Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday during the Civil War to foster unity.
It gained purchase in the late 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of anxiety and agitation over immigration. The white Protestant stock of the United States was widely unhappy about the influx of European Catholics and Jews, and wanted to assert its cultural authority over these newcomers. How better to do that than to create this national founding myth around the Pilgrims and the Indians inviting them to take over the land? This myth-making was also impacted by the racial politics of the late 19th century. The Indian Wars were coming to a close and that was an opportune time to have Indians included in a national founding myth. You couldn’t have done that when people were reading newspaper accounts on a regular basis of atrocious violence between white Americans and Native people in the West. What’s more, during Reconstruction, that Thanksgiving myth allowed New Englanders to create this idea that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country, having nothing to do with the Indian Wars and slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without having to confront the really dark characteristics of it.”
It’s time we own the truth of our history and stop handing down a colonial myth through the generations. Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Native Americans or unity, and instead, serves to reinforce colonial white supremacy.
I challenge you to tell the real story around the table this year.
"You have stolen our land, and buried it to the ground. You oppressed us, we were banned.
Always misunderstood for being tanned, not a single word from taking my house. You have stolen our land.
You said you paid, but it was planned, and now we are being kicked out. You oppressed us, we were banned.
And you say: we eat from your hand, but you get food thanks to us. You have stolen our land.
Immigration would like us to be canned, but why would we let you be? You oppressed us, we were banned.
How can you say we need to understand?, this was ours to begin with. You have stolen our land, You oppressed us, we were banned."
Poem by Meowlli
Practices to Re-imagine and Unsettle Thanksgiving:
Read a short story or poem like the one above called “Stolen Land” by Meowlli
Tell the truth. Read about the true history of Thanksgiving and any of the provided readings below.
Take a walk. Be with the trees, soils, birds and experience of earth in that moment. Intentionally stand together in silence as you quietly acknowledge the land you touch and the original peoples of that place.
Envision what gratitude in action looks like. It has never been enough to simply be grateful for the first peoples and the land. Share heartfelt gratitude… but don’t let it end there. The following list is from @hopemagick:
Amplify awareness about missing & murdered indigenous women.
Get familiar with #landback and why it's a good idea for not just Indigenous folks but the whole planet.
Follow accounts that educate about Indigenous rights, traditions, practices, joy, and beauty.
Donate to one of the hundreds of Indigenous organizations that need financial support.
Weave gratitude into the fabric of daily life as a means to connect with Spirit. Gather to give thanks for our life's harvest with community more than once a year.
Here are some more ideas:
Give/pay tax/reparations to your local Indigenous tribes.
Learn about the Native Foods of the lands you occupy. Forage and harvest native foods growing in your local area. Support local Indigenous farmers. These relationships are necessary for developing a deeper understanding of the lands we call home.
Join a solidarity action in your area. Indigenous grassroots people on the frontlines are calling on people to join them in solidarity as a national call to action to support and respect their sovereignty.
Here are some Indigenous accounts that we encourage you to follow:
@indigenousclimateaction @riseindigenous @indigenouswomxnclimb @nativewellness @decolonialatlas @iiycfamily @poetagoddess @therednation @wecan_intl @ndncollective @indigenousrising @1492landbacklane @kanahus.tattoos @sodalitemedianews @willgeorge36 @shanchief @yintah_access
Rethinking "Thanksgiving" Toolkit by Indigenous Solidarity Network
All My Relations Podcast: ThanksTaking or ThanksGiving?
Silverman, David J. This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. Bloomsburg, 2020.
Thanksgiving: A Day of Mourning Explained (full list of resources)