Thanksgiving: Thankful not Truthful
Like most things in life, I have a love-hate relationship with Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving started as a way to be thankful for the harvest and crop yield of the year. And I appreciate the grateful nature and history of the holiday. But that’s just the stories being told to us.
Through my film, theatre, and marketing studies, I have analyzed the power of storytelling. All forms of media are used to sway audiences, and the story, or myth of Thanksgiving, is no exception.
The myth hides Thanksgiving’s origins and the atrocities tied to them. By removing the trauma of colonialism, it continues to feed into the racial oppression Native Americans tribes face today.
For example, the original plan for the Dakota Access Pipeline was to be placed under the Mississippi River. However, people were concerned that this would contaminate the drinking water. So instead, in 2017, The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was put at risk as they moved the pipeline under Lake Oahe. The Tribe's source of water. Despite the nation passing a resolution in 2015 stating that “the Dakota Access Pipeline poses a serious risk to the very survival of our Tribe and … would destroy valuable cultural resources.”
By whitewashing history through the mythical meaning of Thanksgiving, we are unable to see how history repeats itself. And we further degrade those whose ancestors have perished at the hands of Thanksgiving’s founding fathers.
Let’s be clear. Our forefathers were thankful for pillaging, abusing, and stealing from Native Americans. And I don’t think we, today, are in a place where we have repented enough to continue celebrating without drastic change.
When I was a kid, yes, I am that old; it was normal and deemed unproblematic to showcase harmful Native American stereotypes like paper chief headdresses. My education consisted of pilgrims and none of their grimacing crimes.
Now that I am older, I am barely wiser. I still consider my education on the true history of Thanksgiving and most of US history to be lacking and whitewashed.
So, let’s update all of our Thanksgiving knowledge in a short but yet more in-depth than the news cycle and education system.
Let’s start with a simple wrong to be written. We don’t actually know when the first Thanksgiving first occurred. 2021 was deemed the 400th Thanksgiving, but there’s no real reason.
Around the colonies, there were different first Thanksgivings. Spanish colonizers in Florida ate beans and pork in 1565 (which is very close to what I will be eating this Thursday). In 1619, Colonizers in Virginia celebrated. And the Massachusetts Pilgrims observed a religious Thanksgiving in 1623.
Sidenote: Using coded language like pilgrims instead of the 1620s colonizers who came on the Mayflower is part of whitewashing our history.
But back to the conception of Thanksgiving.
However, the Thanksgiving origin story could be from 1637. When the Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor, John Winthrop, ordered a celebration of the colonial soldiers who had just murdered hundreds of men, women, or children of the Pequot tribe. Today, this area is Mystic, Connecticut, and even the wondrous talents of Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza cannot erase the history of this town and country.
But no matter which colonizers started the tradition, the common denominator was the destruction of the lives and land of Native Americans.
But luckily, I am not the first to realize our ways; others have called out the racism rooted in this holiday. They have dubbed the day Takesgiving or the Thanksgiving Massacre. Even Truthsgiving has been used in order to get citizens talking and thinking about the truth of US colonization and the genocide of Native people.
So while I do appreciate the 21st century’s understanding of Thanksgiving, it is still connected to colonialism. We are told to be thankful, hospitable, and kind, but these are the traits Native Americans showed colonists. To save the colonists' lives, Native Americans shared food with them and helped them survive, but to show gratitude, colonists waged war. For decades, white citizens attempted to erase and belittle Native people and their cultures through assimilation boarding schools, professional sports mascots, and history books.
But most recently, the US failed to respond and support Native American communities through the Covid 19 Pandemic, as Native American individuals were 3.5 times more at risk of being hospitalized with covid than non-Native Americans. This is, of course, in addition to the inequitable systemic racial structures that corrupted Native Americans’ healthcare.
Thanksgiving symbolizes the trauma Native Americans have faced, so the holiday's joyous nature needs to be changed. In turn, the US should unite for a national day of mourning, education, and reflection.
Oh wait, this is already a thing.
Observed by the United American Indians of New England, the fourth Thursday of November, aka Thanksgiving Day, is better known as, The National Day of Mourning. Their website states:
Since 1970, Indigenous people & their allies have gathered at noon on Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native people do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims & other European settlers. Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the erasure of Native cultures. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Indigenous ancestors and Native resilience. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that Indigenous people continue to experience worldwide.
Part of US history will always contain the brutality and oppression Native Americans faced. But by continuing to erase the truth in US history and the countless ways systemic racism furthers this otherness, it becomes part of our present and future society.
My US ancestral line starts with my parents being born here. And, I have no direct lineage to colonizing countries. But I am still reaping the benefits and privileges of the colonizers’ actions and the ripple effect on our governmental and societal structures. Whether your children are first-generation US citizens or your ancestors were the original colonizers, we all bear the blame. So we must take action to change our present and our future and repent for the past.
How will you act?
A great starting point is to research whose land you are really on: which Native American Land are you on?
Smithsonian: Thanksgiving Myth and What We Should Be Teaching Kids
Covid 19 Impact on the Native American Communities
United American Indians of New England
I am not an expert on most things, let alone history. I went to a majority white school with mostly white teachers who taught me white history. This is part of how I educate myself and encourage others to do the same. Clearly, look below.
This is the face of a young Faith unhappily appropriating Native American culture at her very white preschool.