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The dark side of Thanksgiving

During my research for last weeks post I learned more about the less savory side of American Thanksgiving. I had wanted to write a fun post on Thanksgiving, a goal that seemed simple but one that is pretty challenging if you really consider all of the historical baggage Thanksgiving truly carries. I felt that, in order to give this topic the respect it deserved, it needed to be separate from a “fun Thanksgiving post”. So, sorry, I don’t know how to make this post funny or light, because the topic really isn’t, and I will admit it gets me thinking about if I should be promoting the celebration of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Mythology

There is certainly a Thanksgiving myth that, at least when I was a child, was perpetuated by the predominant culture in the US. Basically, it was a story of the Native Americans and Pilgrims coming together for a large feast. I vaguely remember being told that the Native Americans had helped the Pilgrims with what crops to plant and the Pilgrims, in turn, invited the Native Americans to their celebration – cementing a friendship between the two groups.


Image, cropped from: Sorry for the culturally insensitive/inaccurate drawing.

Trying to determine the true story is more difficult. From what I’ve read so far, while a Patuxet (a now extinct Native American band of the Wampanoag tribal confederation) man named Squanto did help Pilgrims in Massachusetts Bay learn to grow corn and fish as well as assisting with the creation of a peace treaty between them and the Wampanoag Nation, and one great feast was held to honor him and the Wampanoags, there is much more to the story.

For one thing, the reason Squanto was able to communicate with the Pilgrims was that he spoke excellent English, having survived slavery in England (in 1614 English explorers had abducted Patuxet people to become slaves in England and left behind small pox which decimated those that escaped). After the peace treaty was signed with the Wampanoag Nation, Puritans starting coming to North America, seizing lands, enslaving Natives, and the Pequot Nation – who had not signed a peace treaty – began fighting back. A massacre of over 700 of these people, gathered for their Green Corn Festival (their celebration of harvest). kicked off a series of attacks on Native American villages and, when successful, a “Thanksgiving” feast was held after each one. For more details, click here.



These roots of Thanksgiving are dark. And, I’m a bit at a loss for how to move forward with my own future Thanksgiving holidays. Perhaps I should go back to being a holiday grinch? With a history such as this one, is understandable to me that there are Native Americans that protest Thanksgiving.

Some Native people have been speaking out about the past atrocities of the white settlers, in a suppressed speech from 1970, Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, a Wampanoag man wrote that despite Massasoit (the Wampanog’s Sachem – confederation chief) knowing that Europeans had kidnapped and sold Native Americans as slaves in Europe for 220 shillings apiece; Pilgrims had robbed Native American graves; settlers had stole Native’s winter provisions, yet he welcomed Plymouth Plantation settlers. Wamsutta wrote movingly that, less than 50 years later, the Wampanoag were no longer a free people. He had written his speech for the 350 ‘anniversary of Thanksgiving’ (held by descents of the settlers who were still attached to the comfortable mythology of Thanksgiving); when the event planners read his speech before the celebration, they declined to let him give it.

You can also read the thoughts of Jacqueline Keeler (a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux) on Thanksgiving here.  She poignantly speaks of the perspective of the Pilgrims arrival from people who were already inhabiting North America. She speaks of a culture where respect was earned by being able to give without holding back, and that culture was exploited by settlers who did not believe the Native peoples were their equals. A telling example she provides of this attitude is a Pilgrim leader, Mather the elder, who in 1623 thanked his God as she says, “for destroying the heathen savages to make way “for a better growth,” meaning his people”. She says she celebrates Thanksgiving, cooking her native foods and reflecting on the survival of her ancestors despite the evils of greed, bigotry, hatred, and self-righteousness. “Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle.”




Is there a way to reconcile a celebration of seasons, gratitude, and community with racist and genocidal roots? I know, that for most American descendants of settlers, Thanksgiving has very little to do with consciously celebrating the violence of the settlers that shaped the United States into the country it is today, but I don’t know that lack of consciousness around the suffering of another group of people that makes celebrating an anniversary related to that suffering acceptable. I can understand how celebrating Thanksgiving could be perceived as insensitive to groups of people that were displaced and decimated in the process. I certainly feel that perpetuating the mythology of Thanksgiving without acknowledging the realities of the people involved, is disrespectful at best.


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