The Thanksgiving Conundrum


There’s a TeenVogue video circulating social media again for the holidays: it features 6 Native American girls stating the “real history behind Thanksgiving.”  It’s strong and powerful. It’s harsh, gut wrenching, and at the end, the girls upend the table in a symbolic move of rejection.  The problem is, it’s wrong.  Somewhat.

In the video, the girls reference several very true, very factual, very horrific events and link them to the Thanksgiving we now celebrate.  They are correct that these events occurred.  They are also correct that the European colonists responsible for the massacres and murders declared an official day of thanksgiving after the massacres.  The problem is that those events are not linked to the harvest celebration that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people celebrated together.  That harvest feast is the basis for the Thanksgiving we have today: a mythical celebration of a brief moment of peace and sharing between two peoples.

Personally, I wish that the video had portrayed the facts precisely because that would have made it so much more powerful.  But even with the minor bobbles, the video is a powerful reminder that the holiday we celebrate has practically nothing to do with reality.  In fact, we would do better to rename it A National Day of Mourning.  Why?  Think about it.

No matter what actually happened at the colonists’ first celebratory harvest feast, the reality is that the indigenous people of North America were decimated by diseases, enslaved, murdered in massive numbers, stolen from (or given unethical payments,) and forced out of their homelands to live in small, limited patches of land that weren’t desirable to Europeans colonists.  In this day and age we call that genocide, among other things.


Even the myth itself has major holes in it.  What about the Native American who single-handedly taught the Pilgrims to plant corn and survive?  He helped them out of the goodness of his heart, right?  Perhaps.  But more likely, the truth is far more complex than that.

Did you ever learn the truth behind Squanto in school?  Probably not.  I certainly didn’t – not until I started researching more about Thanksgiving.  As a child, I always wondered how did he just walk out of the woods speaking perfect English to the Pilgrims?  As an adult, I found out that he was taken by slavers to Europe, where he learned English.  Not exactly the warm fuzzies we were hoping for there.  And when he finally returned – a miracle in itself – he found his entire community wiped out by diseases the European colonists, slavers, and explorers had brought.  Again, not a positive point there.


In fact, the only positive thing about the original harvest feast myth we now call Thanksgiving was the long peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.  The problem is that peace was the exception.  If you look at the interactions between Native Americans and colonists, they’re brutal, bloody, and not generally peaceful.  By celebrating the Thanksgiving myth, we blur the lines between reality and wishfullness – this wasn’t the norm.  To portray it as the norm perpetuates untruth.  As an article on the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) puts it:


According to this mythology, the pilgrims arrived, the Native people fed them and welcomed them, the Indians promptly faded into the background, and everyone lived happily ever after.  The truth is a sharp contrast to that mythology.

Moonanum James & Mahtowin Munro, “Thanksgiving: A National Day of Mourning for Indians, 1998″


The only people who lived happily ever after were the European colonists, mostly because they murdered and conquered their way to peace.  The winners write the history book, truly.


So do we ditch Thanksgiving all together?  I say no.  Harvest feasts are an age-old tradition of many cultures, the Wampanoag among them.  Keep the focus on family, food, celebration, and giving thanks for what we have and sharing it with others.  That’s a great focus.  That’s a wonderful way to live.

Instead of trashing the holiday, trash the Pilgrim myth.  They weren’t exactly nice people – today we would call them fundamentalists of the worst sort.   Sure, they started the colony most people point to as the basis of our country (because who wants to use the Jamestown cannibals for that?) but that’s about their only claim to fame.  Don’t teach your kids the patronizing Thanksgiving feast story, and instead tell them the details: colonists who almost starved in the plenty around them.  Even for the feast, the Native Americans gave in a huge way – providing 5 deer to eat.

Instead, learn more about the Native Americans.   And don’t fall into the trap of treating the different tribes as a monolithic block: there are so many varied cultures and peoples that populate this vast land that it’s insulting to slap a label on them and consider them all to be the same.   I love this guy’s maps because they’re so detailed and eye-opening: he shows the locations of the various tribes before European contact.  I also love that he uses the names that the tribes use: for some of the Native American tribes, we know them by names that the Europeans called them instead of their own names.  The Sioux, for example, is a name that covered the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Peoples and was placed on them by outsiders.


I have always believed that education is the path to moving forward.  How can you change anything if you do not fully understand how it became that way?  Practically speaking that means that the kids and I don’t do cutesy little turkeys and pilgrims for Thanksgiving.  Instead, we’re doing things like going to the Muscogee Creek Festival at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.  It means that we study the Native American practices that Squanto taught the Pilgrims like the 3 Sisters planting method with corn, beans, and squash.


It’s tempting to completely ditch the holiday altogether, but I think it’s better to use it as a learning opportunity.  To teach our kids that history is complex and bloody.  To show them that myths are not reality.  And hey – let’s celebrate Divine Rage – otherwise known as Squanto.  Because for whatever reason, he did save a lot of people’s lives that he could have hated enough to let die.  That kind of compassion is worth celebrating.




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