Decade after decade, primary school children create construction-paper turkeys and dress up as Indians and Pilgrims to recreate the original Thanksgiving feast. This feast, through folklore and propagation of whitewashed history, is portrayed as a momentous celebration between survivors of the Mayflower, the Puritans who established Plymouth Colony, and the friendly Natives from the Wampanoag tribe.
The fanciful retelling of that Thanksgiving feast was perpetrated by our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, whose proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863, made the last Thursday of every November “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” for “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” and a hopeful, peaceful end to the Civil War.
For many of the surviving Native American tribes, Thanksgiving is not synonymous with blessings and praise. Rather, the day is a reminder of a dark and violent history that is rarely told in its entirety.
We all know the story of Thanksgiving we’ve been taught; in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans put aside their differences to come together for a meal that was to give thanks for the plentiful fall harvest. This version of the “First Thanksgiving” is regularly seen as fact, but the story is darker in reality.
The timeline is relative. The Mayflower did bring the “pilgrims” to North America from Plymouth, England in 1620, and they landed at what is now Plymouth, Mass., where they then set up a colony. In 1621, they celebrated a successful “harvest” with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the local Wampanoag tribe.
It’s from this event that Thanksgiving as we know it was born. Thanksgiving became a holiday during the Civil War, but neither food, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, nor the Native tribes—all crucial to today’s holiday—were mentioned in President Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation.
Another viewpoint is that the “First Thanksgiving” originated from the massacre of Pequot people in 1637, an outcome of the Pequot War. While it is fact that a day of thanksgiving was noted in the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies later, it is not accurate to state it was the foundation for our modern Thanksgiving.
There’s no documentation that native tribes were invited to the feast. Possibly the most common misconception is that the Puritans extended an invite to the Native Americans for helping them reap the harvest. The truth of how they all ended up feasting together is unknown.
The biggest issue I find with Thanksgiving is the misconception that the “First Thanksgiving” was the beginning of a long friendship between the settlers and the natives. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of ideas have been put forth of what Thanksgiving is really about, seeming to say that peaceful Natives were welcoming the Pilgrims and providing them food. Yes, they did provide food and they were generous, but it was not reciprocated.
Eventually in Massachusetts, where the first Thanksgiving was said to be, the Puritan settlers moved the natives aside. That’s where Americans forget the true history. Most have never heard about the conflict known as King Philip’s War. Following the original Thanksgiving feast, tensions arose between the natives and the settlers reaching a boiling point by 1675, which culminated in King Philip’s War.
Lasting three years, the conflict roared throughout New England, destroying 12 townships and almost completely annihilating the Wampanoag tribe and their allies, the neighboring Narragansett tribe from Rhode Island. King Philip’s War, also called Great Narragansett War (1675–76), countered Native Americans against English settlers and their Indian allies. It was one of the bloodiest wars in pre-U.S.colonial history.
That is the true story of Thanksgiving: settlers arrive, take control of the land and drive out indigenous people. The picture of Thanksgiving we are often presented with is a shadow of the truth, and it’s really what we want to believe. We want to believe that the Puritan settlers from the Mayflower were just humble, god-fearing Christians that—in their moment of greatest need—befriended a local native tribe that took pity on their suffering.
We want to believe that this was the beginning of a friendship that was a representation of American moral values, so we paint this picture and brainwash our children with a false representation of history. The truth is, there is nothing wrong with making a holiday that’s sole purpose is to bring people together for a day of thanks.
The issue is basing this holiday on a whitewashed narrative that ignores the hundreds of years of genocide that was committed against the Native Tribes of North America who were not and still are not deserving of the horrendous atrocities done to their people.