It is common knowledge that there are “two sides to every story” and in the case of Thanksgiving, most people are aware of one, that Thanksgiving Day is an annual day that celebrates the pilgrim’s harvest and other blessings. But there’s another, lesser known, story, which can be argued is closer to historical truth. So let’s revisit the history of Thanksgiving.
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is associated with the massacre of Wampanaog and Pequot Peoples which led to Governor William Bradford proclaiming a day of gratitude after emerging victorious in battle. Thanksgiving therefore is not a day to give thanks, but is observed as a day of mourning over the genocide that took place in Massachusetts in May 1637 where over 700 Wampanaog and Pequot women and children were burned to death. As such, Thanksgiving for the Indigenous people of the United States is but an annual celebration of the whitewashed history of indigenous massacre and genocide.
In 1970, for the 350th anniversary of the annual celebration, Frank “Wamsutta” James, the Mashpee Wampanaog Traditional leader and elder, was approached to give a speech to honor his ancestors. However when he shared his speech with organizers and officials, they felt it was “too aggressive” and asked him to read a statement instead. He declined and they denied him the opportunity to share the truth of his people. It was soon after that Frank James, along with the United American Indians of New England, decided to organize the first National Day of Mourning to shed a light on crimes against the country’s Indigenous peoples.
This holiday is a painful reminder of the genocide and the erasure of the Indigenous people. Here’s how you can decolonize Thanksgiving, end racist traditions and honor Native Americans on their National Day of Mourning.
Read up on the true, violent history of Thanksgiving and colonialism.
You can also visit this website www.trc.ca to read up on a collection of accounts, documents and other materials that tell the experiences of survivors affected by the Residential School system. Through this, you get to support larger truth-telling efforts.
Listen to this podcast episode from All My Relations Podcast where Wampanaog scholars, Paula Peters and Linda Coombs talk about the real story of Thanksgiving.
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Enlighten your friends and family
This is an important time to talk to your family about the violence of colonization.
My fifth grade child, for example, recently learned about the pilgrims and the colonizers racing to conquer the “New World” in school. I wanted to be involved to ensure they understood the wider historical context of what they were learning, so we discussed the legacy of violence of the colonization and how the land was stolen. I asked my daughter what she would have done if she was a Native American during that time. She answered that it would make her happy if she could teach the settlers all about planting and harvesting new crops and sharing the land.
In the eyes of a child, the story of violence doesn’t need violence to repair the damage. Thanks to my daughter’s teacher who took a decolonizing approach to teaching her students about Thanksgiving, my child is learning age-appropriate lessons about the truth of Thanksgiving and is rejecting the colonialist-backed myths of this holiday.
Acknowledge whose land you are on
It seems as if showing respect to “the other” is not in the vocabulary of the settlers and this sign of disrespect has stretched until the present time. Giving thanks once a year is a sign of arrogance. While the Indigenous Peoples often sing praises of gratitude for every sunrise or for every harvest, colonialists act as if they have rightful ownership of the land they stole.
Recognizing and acknowledging whose land you are on is a sign of respect, whether you are in the United States or not, if you are on Indigenous land you should acknowledge the traditional owners of the land. Learn whose land you’re on by doing research. While this is not enough to end systemic racism against Indigenous peoples, it can be a first step towards correcting the myths and traditions that oppress and erase their culture and history.
Erasure is a form of racism. Gratitude shouldn’t erase the past. While we cannot change history, learning the real story of Thanksgiving, of what really transpired and then shedding light on the inaccuracies and myths promoted by colonial victors helps bring greater awareness to the oppression and struggles of Indigenous and First Nations people. By acknowledging truth, then and only then, can healing transpire and can we truly have a fair, just and equal world that we can all “give thanks” for.
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Cover image of a painting by JLG Ferris, 1932 / Library of Congress via Flickr.