Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving by Milissa Carter
In fourteen hundred ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue nursery rhyme isn’t the only fairytale that has been perpetuated in our history books, especially when it comes to people that have been marginalized. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the story of Thanksgiving after the Mayflower arrives in 1620 has been romanticized as well. It is important that we are able to revisit our history, even the shameful history, and stop the cycle of marginalizing others by repeating a false narrative because it feels good for us. It was my goal to start to decolonize Thanksgiving for my family and wanted to share these thoughts with you.
Let’s start with the language used is to describe the characters in the Thanksgiving narrative.
- A pilgrim is defined as a person who travels to a holy place for religious reasons.1
- A savage is defined as aggressive and violent; causing great harm.2
History books tend to use pilgrim and savage which automatically creates a sense of calm and peace about the Europeans and a sense of fear of the Indigenous people even before we can get to any of the content of the story. What if instead we started by switching out the terms for more accurate reflections of the characters in this story.
- A colonizer is a person who helps take control of an area or a country that is not their own, especially using force, and sends people from their own country to live there.3
- A native is defined as connected with the place where you were born and lived for the first years of your life.4
At the time when the European colonizers sailed to the new land, the black plague was ravaging the people of the Old World and ultimately killed one out of every three Europeans over a three-year period. When Europeans brought the black plague to the New World in the early 1600s, it is estimated that it killed 90-96% of people living there, which were Indigenous people.5 This mass extermination was sold as a blessing from God to the Europeans in this New and Old World: ‘According to the English authors of Plimoth and Massachusetts Bay Colony, it was God’s judgment of the “heathen” and “infidels” that caused him to inflict sundry diseases amongst the Wampanoag and neighboring tribal populations as to allow for the growth of the heavily Christian population in coastal Massachusetts.’6
The most common date recited for the first thanksgiving is 1621 and recants a rather idyllic remembrance. There other dates are quoted as being the source of this holiday. One such date is in 1637, ‘on that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women and children – all murdered.’7 Kevin McBride, an anthropology professor at the University of Connecticut and director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center said of this attack, “The massacre had some important implications. What the English did sent a very important message to Indian country: We have the political will and military means to exact our will upon you.”8
Thanksgiving has been celebrated on different days and months throughout our United States history. The first proclamation was for a day of thanksgiving and prayer from President Washington on November 26, 1789. In 1863, President Lincoln announces that the country will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday on November 26, 1863 in ‘gratitude for a pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg’.10 In 1939, President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November to extend the Christmas shopping season in order to help businesses still suffering from the lingering effects of the Great Depression.11 Thanksgiving received a permanent date in 1941.
Another common theme of the Thanksgiving holiday is around the food. In “Why I’m Not Thankful for Thanksgiving,” Michael Dorris describes a memory with his son:
“A year ago my older son brought home a program printed by his school; on the second page was an illustration of the “First Thanksgiving,” with a caption which read in part: “They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!” On the contrary! The Pilgrims had literally never seen “such a feast,” since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided, or so legend has it, by the local tribe.”9
Each of these themes, plus different cultural values between the European and Indigenous communities, adds a layer of complexity, solidifying the romanticized narrative of Thanksgiving that has been told for 400 years. While we may not know the exact the day-by-day history, we can see clear themes that the Europeans were aggressors and that the Indigenous people of this New World were demonized from the start. We can also see that the holiday has been used to promote political and economic agendas, not ones of peace and communal experiences with those not like us. So, while we eat our meal and give thanks on Thursday, our family will continue our conversation about the European and Indigenous joint history, how much of history is written by the winner, and that we must seek the truth, even when it is painful.
Other Interesting Reads & Podcasts
Teaching Thanksgiving from a Native American Perspective https://www.bigpicture.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=579050&type=u&pREC_ID=1079634
*Note: The link to Why I’m Not Thankful for Thanksgiving by Michael Dorris is broken in this reference. All other links work. Please go to: http://gayleturner.net/Micheal_Dorris_Thanks_Notsomuch.pdf
First Name Basis – The Untold Story of Thanksgiving
The Truth About The First Thanksgiving
The Mashantucket Pequot Museum
We Are Grateful