The Truth About Thanksgiving
Today is the 400th anniversary of what is often considered ”the first” Thanksgiving. But, like so much of American history, the truth is a far cry from what we’ve learned.
Growing up, many of us remember fondly our young elementary school activities celebrating Thanksgiving: reading about the Pilgrims and American Indians, cutting out construction paper in autumnal colors of brown, orange, and red, pasting together paper turkeys and Indian headdresses and black Pilgrim hats, and decorating our classroom with colorful paper autumn leaves. We would don our Indian and Pilgrim hats and reenact the First Thanksgiving. It gave us a feeling of warmth and security, of anticipation of good food and gathering of loved ones. And it celebrated the coming together of Native Americans and white Pilgrims in peace. A lovely scene. A lovely tradition.
The only problem is that, like so much of what we learned about American history, it was a grossly sanitized rewrite of history, a Pollyanna-version of early white America "settling the frontier." In fact, it was a lie, devoid of the darker side of history: massacres, plagues, stealing land, war, and, of course, the retribution of Natives who fought the white invaders to keep their land and way of life. Maybe historians and textbook publishers thought children should not read about such brutal realities. Or maybe they didn’t want to besmirch the American creation story.
The first fallacy is that the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant pilgrim feast was the “first” Thanksgiving breaking of bread shared with native Americans. The first such feast was actually held near what is today St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565, 56 years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast in 1621 at Plymouth Colony. Spanish Conquistador and explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed on the Florida coast and held a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first feast of thanksgiving to be held in North America by white immigrants. And they invited the area’s Native American Timucua Indians to the event. There were, in fact, two other Thanksgiving Masses recorded by other Spanish explorers in the New World before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony.
Nor was the 1621 Thanksgiving hosted supposedly by the Pilgrims the first at Plymouth Colony. According to historian David J. Silverman, George Washington University professor of history and author of This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, Wampanoag Chief Massasoit (also known as Ousamequin) welcomed the Pilgrims to a celebratory feast and in fact, saved them from starvation that first winter.
Nor was the arrival of the Mayflower the first contact North American Indians had with white settlers. The Wampanoags themselves had had nearly a century of contact with Europeans and at least two members or more of the Wampanoag tribe could speak some English.
Because of that contact, the Wampanoags nearly 70 villages had already been decimated by plagues brought by whites. The Wampanoags associated white gunpowder and firearms not only with violent death but also believed it caused the epidemics. Alternatively, the white settlers believed their God was “sweeping away the pagans” and making room for the new white settlers.
The following spring, the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn. In fall 1621, the tribe sat down with them to break bread and celebrate their harvest. But, here again, another fallacy. The Pilgrims had not actually invited the Wampanoags to their feast. Some 90 warriors came to the village to investigate the sounds of guns and cannons, distrustful of the settlers and suspecting the whites’ were planning to wage war with the tribe. Later, Massasoit’s son would fight a bloody war with them, resulting in the loss of their lands and decimation of the tribe.
In fact, the 1621 Thanksgiving feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans came to signify to the Wampanoags, other coastal tribes and then tribes across all of America the beginning of the loss of their land, livelihood and civilization to white invasion and decimation of their people by epidemics, war, and broken treaties.
The white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant legend of Thanksgiving became part of the American creation story and the beginning of the concept of Manifest Destiny. The popularity of the holiday was solidified first by decrees by President George Washington, then Abraham Lincoln, who seeking to find ways to bring a nation and families together during the Civil War found it a poignant public relations tool.
The dichotomy between the popular white perception and Native perceptions existed for 350 years, nearly unknown to most Americans until 1970. That year was the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing and event organizers were planning a huge commemoration. As part of the events, they invited Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal leader, Wamsutta Frank James to present a speech, “thanking the Pilgrims for bringing civilization to the shores.” But James’ version of the first Thanksgiving shocked the organizers. They asked James to rewrite the speech but he refused. What resulted was a galvanized movement among the Wampanoag, then other coastal tribes to establish a counter narrative of the Thanksgiving holiday: The National Day of Mourning. A 15-foot statue of Chief Massasoit, who saved the Pilgrims from starvation in 1620, then taught them to grow corn and how to survive, was erected on the shores of Plymouth. Below the powerful statue is a bronze plaque that reads:
"Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in a National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."
Four years after the first Day of Mourning event, in 1974, Wampanoag tribal members reclaimed the Wampanoag human remains that were displayed at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Wamsutta Frank James himself carried the box of his ancestors’ bones from the museum.
Today, the event has grown and Native Americans and nonnatives from across the continent attend. "We go there every year, along with many non-indigenous allies, to talk about the truth about Thanksgiving," said Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England. "It's still not known well enough," she said. "But I do think that more and more, nonnative people are listening and learning and are interested in the truth."
Ironically, the Wampanoag and other Native Americans tribes across the continent are once again suffering terrible fatality rates from the COVID pandemic today. And Obama-era recognition of the Wampanoag’s tribal land trust was reversed by the Trump administration. So they are once again struggling to regain their land.
Many Native American leaders say they do not wish to undo the American Thanksgiving holiday and that giving thanks is good. But they believe Americans should understand the truth.
So how do we reconcile truth with tradition? Celebrate Thanksgiving and also honor the Native American Day of Mourning? Perhaps with honesty and humility and gratefulness and recognizing injustice—past and present—so we can make the world better for all people.
For a softer look at the Thanksgiving holiday, you may enjoy this related post:
• The First Thanksgivings
"The Truth About Thanksgiving" is a new post, first published on Facebook on Thanksgiving, November 26, 2020
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