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Reframing Thanksgiving

November is here and we’re starting to think about autumnal celebrations. But Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday. Most of us now use it as a nice late-fall break and a time to connect with family and friends (and maybe to eat a lot of food and watch football). Unpacking the history of Thanksgiving is complicated, as the modern version is quite different from what was originally celebrated and the true origins of the holiday are horrific.

Let’s start with the actual story of the “original” Thanksgiving in 1621. The story usually says that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock celebrated a feast with the Wampanoag people, led by the native translator “Squanto”. In this colonial telling, The Wampanoag either taught the Pilgrims to plant food or brought food to sustain the Pilgrims through the winter. In this “traditional” version of the story, both parties came together and despite the hardship of the time, had a great meal and shared culture and tradition. About the only fact in this story that’s true is the year.A more accurate version of the story: the “Pilgrims” of Plymouth, MA were not the first British settlers in the area. In the 4 years before 1621, English explorers had been interacting with the Wampanoag in the Northeast and spreading a pandemic that obliterated 90% of the native population. When the Puritan settlers arrived in 1620, they took up residence in an abandoned Wampanoag village that was strewn with the bodies of pandemic-decimated natives. These settlers had no skills and very little means to support themselves. The Wampanoag certainly did bring them food that late fall in 1621, and probably did help the settlers learn to grow food. That said, there probably was not a feast that fall, as the Puritan Pilgrims would have actually fasted in gratitude, as was their tradition. 

The Wampanoag were actually led by Osamequin. “Squanto” was actually named Tisquantum and he spoke English because he had previously been enslaved by the settlers. Any truth to peace that the “Thanksgiving” feast of 1621 represents was gone within a few generations, as settlers and Native peoples would go to war in 1675 and kill half of each other's population.

The big question is, what can we do to decolonize Thanksgiving and the whitewashing of that history? How can this time represent people coming together with family and friends while not avoiding the erasure of the history and culture of the people who call this land their home?

According to Cultural Survival, an Indigenous-led NGO and U.S. registered non-profit that advocates for Indigenous Peoples' rights and supports Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures, and political resilience, here are a few ways we can do this*: First, we can educate ourselves: We can find out whose land we are on and honor them by calling out their names, as we sit down to break bread. Second, we can learn the real history of the holiday and remember that from a Native perspective, this holiday and Columbus Day serve as a reminder of the genocide and violence that Native communities have experienced and continue to experience. And we can add some native foods to the menu and decolonize our dinners.

We must raise up Native voices, listen to their messages and share them with friends and family. We can support Native businesses and bring visibility to them on social media. Finally, we can use this time to remind ourselves that our time with family and friends is precious and is it is imperative that we share the real histories behind our holidays with our children, so we can begin to unpack the harm caused.

More Resources

The Native Lands App: Learn whose land you’re on
From Cultural Survival: 9 Ways to Decolonize and Honor Native Peoples on Thanksgiving
From Smithsonian Voices:  Everyone’s history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known
From Green Matters: Thanksgiving Glorifies the Abhorrent Colonization of Indigenous Peoples
From Insider: The true story behind Thanksgiving is a bloody one, and some people say it's time to cancel the holiday 
From The Real History Of Thanksgiving Isn't The One You Learned In School—Here's How To Celebrate Smarter
From Project 562: A Thanksgiving Message from Seven Amazing Native Americans