There are always two sides to a story. Unfortunately, when it comes to the history of Thanksgiving, generations of Americans have been taught a one-sided history in homes and schools.
The dominant cultural and historical story has been told from the perspective of the white colonialists who landed near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts in 1620. In this version of the Thanksgiving story, the holiday commemorates the peaceful, friendly meeting of English settlers and the Wampanoag tribe for three days of feasting and thanksgiving in 1621.
Every year, news outlets and social media are a-buzz with Thanksgiving themes.
There is little coverage of the fact that November is Native American Heritage Month or that the day after Thanksgiving, known to most as Black Friday, is Native American Heritage Day.
Thanksgiving is a time for celebration, good food, and giving thanks. So as we gather with family, crush unworldly amounts of stuffing, and enjoy a football game in the crisp autumn air, let’s also acknowledge the real history of the holiday and practice gratitude by giving back.
This year, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving and also Truthsgiving, a concept coined by Indigenous activist Christine Nobiss to dismantle common misunderstandings about Thanksgiving with…well, the truth. So in the name of Truthsgiving, here’s the true history of this holiday (and what you can do about it).
We’d like to thank IllumiNative for their collaboration on this piece and for providing resources and campaigns that increase the visibility of Native Nations and peoples in American society.
Table of Contents
What’s the Real Story of Thanksgiving?
“The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.”
Wamsutta Frank James, Wampanoag activist and organizer of the National Day of Mourning
The “first Thanksgiving,” as a lot of folks understand it, was in 1621 between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag* tribe in present-day Massachusetts. While records indicate that this celebration did happen, there are a few misconceptions we need to clear up. Because of the erasure (in other words, removal and exclusion) of Native American narratives from the histories a lot of us were taught, we’ve been left with an incomplete picture of what really happened. So here’s the full story.
There’s no evidence that the Wampanoag people were even invited in the first place. An account from the time said 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe were present and makes no mention of invitations. Some experts believe that these 90 men were an army, sent by Wampanoag leader Ousamequin at the sound of gunshots (which turned out to be a part of the celebration).
In their first encounter with the Wampanoag people, the Pilgrims stole from the tribe’s winter provisions — it wasn’t until later that Ousamequin formed an alliance between the groups. Even then, the alliance really only existed because the Wampanoag people were ravaged by diseases brought by European colonizers in the years prior. It was less about intercultural harmony and more about survival (made necessary by the actions of these settlers).
That first harvest was followed by deadly conflicts between colonizers and Native people, including (but definitely not limited to) the Wampanoags. The Europeans repaid their Native allies by seizing Native land and imprisoning, enslaving, and executing Native people.
Following “Thanksgiving” celebrations by European settlers often marked brutal victories over Native people, like the Pequot Massacre of 1636 or the beheading of Wampanoag leader Metacom in 1676.
*Today, the Wampanoag make up two federally recognized tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
Why Haven’t I Heard This Before?
“Many students still complete an American education unsure about the place of Native people in the nation’s past—or in its present.”
Phillip Deloria, Harvard professor and scholar of Native American history
Unfortunately, a lot of US schools just don’t accurately teach Native American history — or sometimes don’t teach Native American history at all. But the fact is, Native American history is American history. November is National Native American History Month, which makes it the perfect time to learn about the role Native people have played in shaping our country.
Here’s the other thing to keep in mind: Native people are a part of the past, and they’re also very much a part of our country’s present (and future). About 87% of state-level history standards don’t mention Native American history after 1900, but Native American people have had a huge impact on contemporary US society. Take, for example, Joy Harjo, the first Native American poet laureate, the young Indigenous activists who are fighting for their communities, and the record number of lawmakers bringing Native representation to government.
Why Does It Matter?
“To me, Thanksgiving is a reminder of our resistance as Indigenous People navigating this settler society that continuously tries to erase and destroy us, yet we are still here.”
Allen Salway, writer and community organizer from the Navajo Nation
We can’t use inaccurate histories to inform our understanding of Native communities. The erasure of Native narratives and voices contributes to the invisibility of Native people and issues. By recognizing the true history of these events, we can affirm the experiences of Native communities and do a better job of tackling the systemic issues that they have faced (and continue to face) as a result. After all, how can you properly address a problem if you don’t understand its root causes?
What Can I Do?
“It’s past time to honor the Indigenous resistance, tell our story as it really happened, and undo romanticized notions of the holiday that have long suppressed our perspective.”
Christine Nobiss, Indigenous activist and Decolonizer with Seed Sovereignty
Some folks skip Thanksgiving altogether and opt for Native-led events, like the National Day of Mourning held in Plymouth since 1970 or the Indigenous People Sunrise Ceremony held in California since 1969.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving by feasting with family, watching the parade, and going back for seconds (…or thirds), there are also some simple, impactful things you can do to help combat Native erasure this holiday:
Celebrate Indigenous cuisine. Add one of these recipes from Indigenous chefs to your Thanksgiving spread, with a focus on local, sustainable ingredients.
Speak about Native peoples in a respectful way. Look over this Do and Don’t guide for allies, and use it to start conversations with your friends.
Learn and teach the true history of Native people. You can help shape your education. Present these lesson plans to your teacher (Native People Today, Impact of Native Americans, and The Future is Indigenous Coloring Book) and ask them to engage in discussions about Native Americans, their history, and their impact.
Acknowledge whose land you’re on at this very moment. Enter your zip code to find out whose traditional territories you’re residing on. Take a minute to learn more about them and honor their enduring relationship to the land.
Support Native-lead initiatives. Watch and share this mini-documentary about the Fort Belknap Indian Community’s fight against the Keystone Pipeline.
Watch the Klepper docuseries episode, Invisible Nation. Hear more about the impact of invisibility on Native peoples, and use this viewers guide from IllumiNative to further your understanding.
WHAT IS THE REAL MEANING OF THANKSGIVING?
Here at Native Hope, we hope that this Thanksgiving, the hearts of all people, Native and non-Native, are filled with hope, healing, and a desire to dismantle the barriers—physical, economic, educational, psychological, and spiritual— that divide us and oppress us.
This time of year, and these two holidays, Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Day, give us the opportunity to reflect on our collective history and to celebrate the beauty, strength, and resilience of the Native tribes of North America.
We remember the generosity of the Wampanoag tribe to the helpless settlers.
We remember the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lost their lives at the hands of colonialists and the genocide of whole tribes.
We remember the vibrant and powerful Native descendants, families, and communities that persist to this day throughout the culture and the country.
We remember people like Sharice Davids and Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland who became the first Native American woman to serve as cabinet secretary.
And last but not least, we remember all of the friends and family of Native Hope who have embraced our mission of healing and storytelling. We give thanks to you for your support!
What is the true history of Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States, and Thanksgiving 2022 occurs on Thursday, November 24. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
What was the original purpose of Thanksgiving?
In 1789, George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but only for that year, and it wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast but rather intended as a “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was
Who created Thanksgiving holiday and why?
On this date, Representative Allen Treadway of Massachusetts made a plea on the House Floor for Congress to set the last Thursday of November as the legal holiday for Thanksgiving. On Thursday, November 26, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”
What are 5 true facts about Thanksgiving?
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 over a three day harvest festival. It included 50 Pilgrims, 90 Wampanoag Indians, and lasted three days. It is believed by historians that only five women were present.
Turkey wasn’t on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. Venison, duck, goose, oysters, lobster, eel, and fish were likely served, alongside pumpkins and cranberries (but not pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce!).
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday on October 3, 1863. Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” convinced Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday after writing letters for 17 years.
The history of U.S. presidents pardoning turkeys is patchy. Harry Truman is often credited with being the first president to pardon a turkey, but that’s not quite true. He was the first to receive a ceremonial turkey from the National Turkey Federation – and he had it for dinner. John F. Kennedy was the first to let a Thanksgiving turkey go, followed by Richard Nixon who sent his turkey to a petting zoo. George H.W. Bush is the president who formalized the turkey pardoning tradition in 1989.
There are four towns in the United States named “Turkey.” They can be found in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
What do Native Americans think of Thanksgiving?
t’s important to know that for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest since it commemorates the arrival of settlers in North America and the centuries of oppression and genocide that followed.