Typically, many Americans today visualize the “first Thanksgiving” as a ground-breaking, peaceful affair where the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together in a grand feast. However, this popular perspective shows disrespect to Indigenous lives by overlooking more integral aspects of the event, creating a narrative that can be false, misleading and inconsiderate of the lives of Indigenous people across the continent.
The interactions between the Pilgrims and Native Americans that we learn about today were in reality not as harmonious as we envision them to be. One such aspect that is often forgotten is that the English frequently engaged in exploitation of the regional tribes. Due to the Pilgrims’ inability to grow crops because of their unfamiliarity with the soil, they often pillaged the graves of and stole food from the Wampanoag tribe to survive.
Furthermore, the English travellers before them had brought many diseases that decimated Native populations, and had engaged in violent encounters for decades prior to the Pilgrims’ landing, ever since 1524. According to a New York Times article by historian David J. Silverman titled, “The Vicious Reality Behind the Thanksgiving Myth,” one of the goals of European early expeditions was selling Native Americans in the transatlantic slave trade.
History also tends to downplay the influence that Native Americans had in the Pilgrims’ survival in the Plymouth Colony. Without them, the weakened Pilgrim population may have never learned how to properly cultivate crops and hunt in the new terrain, thus never surviving that first cold winter at all.
In an article published by Bioneers, a non-profit organization that seeks to revise the public view of topics such as environmentalism, Indigenous groups and women’s rights, writer Alexis Bunten says, “Thanksgiving was one of the only times America’s first peoples were mentioned in school, but they were portrayed as sidekicks to the real heroes, the Pilgrims.”
For these reasons, Thanksgiving symbolizes grief far more than thankfulness for Native Americans across the country.
With this in mind, it is important to consider one’s own perception of Thanksgiving and how it may not show appropriate respect to Indigenous people. There are a variety of habits that people can consciously integrate into their traditions that help to decolonize and rework the connotation around Thanksgiving festivities, as well as give greater honor to Indigenous people.
According to Bioneers, the first step in reworking one’s view of Thanksgiving is learning about the true nature of the holiday. One example is realizing that, historically speaking, Native American culture and English culture had two very different ideas of what constituted a “Thanksgiving,” and the modern day idea was taken from the Wampanoag culture.
The Wampanoag tribe considered the term “Thanksgiving” to be what we think of today; a celebration of a prosperous harvest. However, the English viewed the concept as a day of introspection, being a far more pensive event characterized by intensive prayer, very different from how we see it today.
Another educational experience is learning about the land that we live on and its historically native roots. Websites such as Native-Land.ca allow users to explore which Indigenous tribes lived in different parts of the continent, increasing awareness of the land that we live on and how it was taken from Native Americans throughout history.
Another action is supporting the creative works of Indigenous people, considering that these voices have been inhibited throughout history. By reading books, listening to talks and supporting artisan businesses, we can show greater value for their stories as well as a desire to grow.
Lastly, we can take greater consideration of the types of food we are eating at the dinner table this Thanksgiving. Stated in an article by Sean Sherman published in TIME Magazine in 2019, this can be done by incorporating foods that are organic and historically Indigenous to this land, such as corn, beans, wild rice, pumpkins and more into our Thanksgiving meal, buying from locally based Native American growers and researching traditional Native meals.
“…Confronting the dark history of colonialism in Indian country also promises to shed light, cultivate national humility and, most important, signal to Native people that the country values them,” says Silverman.
Olivia Schlinkman is a first-year Psychology major. OS969352@wcupa.edu