For the past 52 years, on each Thanksgiving, a crowd has gathered before Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts. While Americans across the country sit down to feast with their loved ones, those gathered in Plymouth beat drums, lead prayers, and march in protest. For these Indigenous Americans and their allies, this day is not about food, family or thankfulness. It is a day of mourning.
This Day of Mourning demonstration, started in 1970 by Wamponoag activist Wamsutta “Frank B.” James, has occurred every year since the first protest of the mistreatment of Indigenous Americans. The age-old tale of the friendship formed between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, celebrated by millions of Americans each Thanksgiving, perpetuates the harmful narrative that the English colonists and Native Americans lived in harmony. The celebration of this story overlooks the hundreds of years of enslavement and genocide that Native Americans have endured at the hands of European settlers, and downplays the adversity that they continue to face.
What is the true Thanksgiving Story?
Although the exact date of the first Thanksgiving cannot be pinpointed, it is believed that it occurred between September and November of 1621. The Pilgrims, who fled England in search of religious freedom, landed in Plymouth in 1620. The Pilgrims struggled to adjust to the new landscape, and after a harsh winter, almost half of the original Pilgrims died. Meanwhile, the Wampanoag people, who are Native to the Plymouth area, were having their own struggles. Stricken by diseases brought by Europeans, they suffered a death rate of up to 75%. This was not uncommon, as it was estimated that around 90% of Native Americans had died of European European disease since the first European contact in 1492. The Wampanoag people also had a rivalry with another tribe, and believed that an alliance with the Pilgrims could be used to their advantage. Despite a history of settlers enslaving and stealing from Native Americans, the Wampanoag entered an agreement with the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag showed the Pilgrims the most effective ways to farm and the layout of the land, and in exchange, the Pilgrims agreed to protect the Wampanoag against enemy tribes. It was the help of the Wampanoag people that allowed the Plymouth colony to survive, and that saved the Pilgrims from starvation. What was believed to be the first Thanksgiving meal took place as a way to celebrate a successful autumn harvest and the newfound alliance. It is this celebratory meal and alliance that we honor each year on Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, the peace did not last, and tensions began to rise between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag as more English settlers arrived and slowly began to interfere with the Wampanoag people’s way of life. This eventually caused King Philip’s War, which was devastating to the Wampanoag and other tribes.
In 1662, Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit, died. He was the leader of the Wampanoag people at the time of the Pilgrim’s arrival, established the agreement with them, and was present at the first Thanksgiving meal. After his death, followed by the death of his oldest son Wamsutta, his second son Metacomet, otherwise known as King Phillip, assumed his role as leader of the Wampanoag people. Metacomet believed that their alliance with the Pilgrims was no longer being honored, as the Pilgrims continued to expand onto Wampanoag land. Metacomet formed a plan with other tribes to attempt to drive the colonists out. In response, colonists burned many Native American villages and massacred the tribes involved, including the Wampanoag. Hundreds of Native Americans were either enslaved or killed as a result of this war. In 1676, Metacomet was murdered by colonists and his head was placed on a spike at the Plymouth Colony, where it remained for over two decades.
How did the holiday come to be?
One of the first recorded celebrations of Thanksgiving occurred in 1637, following the Mystic Massacre, also known as the Pequot Massacre. This massacre happened as a part of the Pequot War, which was a war between colonists and the Pequot Native Americans over the land. In the massacre, hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children were murdered and burned by colonists. Massachusetts colony Governor John Winthrop declared Thanksgiving as a celebration of the successful massacre.
On October 3, 1789, U.S. President George Washington recognized November 26 as a day for “public thanksgiving and prayer,” bringing the holiday of Thanksgiving to national attention. However, it was not until 1863, under Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, that Thanksgiving became an annual national holiday. President Lincoln proclaimed the holiday in an attempt to unify the country amid the Civil War. He also hoped to use the holiday to improve relations between the U.S. Government and Native Americans, after the Dakota War of 1862, which resulted in the hanging of 38 Sioux Native Americans Native Americans by the President’s orders.
Should Thanksgiving be celebrated?
Considering this dark history, many Americans find themselves asking the question, should Thanksgiving be celebrated? The answer to this question is different for everyone. The holiday still has some qualities worth celebrating, such as it beingbeing a time to gather with loved ones to eat a good meal and share gratitude. Some families choose to only celebrate those aspects of the holiday, ignoring the whole “first Thanksgiving” narrative altogether. However, it is harder for some people than others to look past the bloody history of colonization that the holiday commemorates. This is why many Indigenous Americans and their allies have been recognizing Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning instead.
“This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection,” said Wampanoag activist Wamsutta “Frank B.” James in his speech written for a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing, which he was never allowed to deliver. “History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man.”
Even though the true history behind Thanksgiving is becoming increasingly acknowledged, there are still plenty of Americans who continue to celebrate Thanksgiving without an understanding of the holiday’s history. The inclusion of events such as King Philip’s War or the Pequot Massacre in the teaching of the Thanksgiving story is crucial to understanding the truth.
“Too many people go through life not knowing the truth behind Thanksgiving and what this day means to the indigenous community,” said San Marcos Ethnic Studies teacher Ms. Lorenzano. “Misconceptions around this day continue to be circulated and as a result history becomes hidden by a romanticized version of the truth. If we wish for our students to become more aware of communities outside of their own we must teach them about days such as this.”
Lack of understanding of these histories is part of why the importance of Ethnic Studies is being emphasized by our school district, as well as by school districts across the country.
“I think people are becoming more conscious of the importance of teaching about Indigenous histories but most are unsure how to tackle it and are intimidated by the topic,” said Ms. Lorenzano. “The English Ethnic Studies Department is excited to start a newly created unit around indigeneity this year! In addition, taking from what I have done in the past, I continue to start Monday classes with a Land Acknowledgement and for the month of November (Native American Heritage Month) am highlighting different members of the Native community.”
While you celebrate Thanksgiving this month, if you do choose to celebrate, it is important to do so with awareness. Educating yourself on the history of Thanksgiving is a good first step, and you can show this in ways as simple as reading a land acknowledgement before your meal.
Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that the history of our country did not start with the first Thanksgiving, or with the arrival of the first settlers. Native Americans inhabited this land for centuries before the Europeans “discovered” the Americas, and their rich culture and history deserves recognition and respect.