History is written by people, and it is not a perfect snapshot of the past. History can be rewritten and abridged to only show one side of the story, and often what we consume is one of those sides. For example: in elementary school, we are force-fed, and often encouraged to play out, a story about the Pilgrims and Native Americans having a feast together and calling it “Thanksgiving,” a holiday we now interpret as a symbol of Americanism and the importance of family. Folklore has us believe that the Native Americans showed the starving colonists how to survive and that the Pilgrims were very grateful for it.
While there is evidence that suggests that a small group of Pilgrims during their 2nd year in the Americas joined a group of Native Americans for a harvest festival, this event did not turn into a holiday or yearly ritual – nor was is it called Thanksgiving. The first official celebration of a Thanksgiving was declared by John Winthrop, a colonial Governor, in 1637 to celebrate the massacre of around 700 Pequot Native Americans – men, women, and children. This was only the beginning; over the next couple of centuries European settlers (and the inhabitants of what eventually became the United States) carried out a massive genocide of Native peoples in North America. Not quite a year after Abraham Lincoln authorized the hanging of 38 Sioux men, North America’s largest mass execution, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday. The United American Native Americans of New England have declared Thanksgiving Day the National Day of Mourning and gather at Plymouth Rock to remember the past and fight against the oppression that still affects them today – almost all of it a result of this senseless exploitation and murder which took place when European settlers invaded their rightful homes.
Thanksgiving is, in essence, a celebration of institutional violence as a weapon and colonization in the continent of North America, as well as the continued legacy of these atrocities. Our country was founded on the genocide of Native people, but this history of violence continues today. Native American women and Native Alaskan women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than non-Native women in the United States, and 86% of these rapes are reported to be perpetrated by non-Native men. “Historically, Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers, including during the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk,” Amnesty International found. “Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization.” Due to lack of resources and the confusion over jurisdiction in tribal lands, a majority of these rape cases are not even prosecuted. There is no justice for Native peoples in America, and discrimination against them is a pervasive part of their lives.
It’s undoubtedly important to make time to see family and friends in our adult lives, and to carve out cultural spaces for appreciating and spending time with your loved ones. But is it worth it if we forget what actually happened – and is still happening – to Native Americans? Is it worth it to celebrate a falsehood and, by extension, perpetuate ignorance, racism, and oppression?
This Thanksgiving, instead of celebrating a dinner full of glossed over tragedies, one could:
- Educate yourself about the Day of Mourning, a day Native Americans commemorate the tragic genocide of their ancestors, remember the truth of this day, and protest the continued racism and oppression they still face.
- Discuss the real history of Thanksgiving and not the Pilgrim mythology with family and friends.
- Support through time, talents, or donations organizations that are working toward a greater equality for Native peoples.
- Be thankful more than once a year. Studies have shown telling the people in your life that you are grateful for them increases your overall happiness only if you are consistently grateful versus choosing to be intentionally grateful only once a year on Thanksgiving.
- Push for a holiday that celebrates family and perseverance on a date that isn’t linked to mass genocide.
The other option is being part of a huge cultural celebration of violence, murder, and oppression – three societal ills that have continued to plague this nation en masse.