Thanksgiving has become a central holiday in American culture; it’s a time to bond with family, feast on turkey or tofurky, and take a post-tryptophan nap with other lazy cousins in front of the game, traditions that have assumed an almost patriotic flavor in the minds of most citizens. We look back on a time when Pilgrims and Native Americans joined in friendship and generosity to enjoy a meal together and celebrate a fruitful harvest. However, similar to other commercialized holidays, this romantic view of the past is a blatant lie and disrespects the Native Americans who endured (and in many ways continue to endure) racism, violence and theft from white people and the American government. Indeed, the true nature of Thanksgiving’s history calls into question whether we should be celebrating it at all.
The Native Americans who attended the famous “Thanksgiving dinner” weren’t even invited. The Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts were firing guns and cannons to celebrate their bountiful fall harvest, and the ancestors of the contemporary Wampanoag nation came to investigate and make sure they were not going to be attacked. While the Pilgrims explained that they had no aggressive plans, the Native Americans remained wary and remained with the Pilgrims for several days, ultimately leading to their attendance at the Thanksgiving feast. The meal was not as harmonious and friendly as mainstream media portrays; it was actually laced with tension.
Thanksgiving was not established as an official holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln created it in order to unify America during the Civil War.
The famous 1621 dinner wasn’t even the main reference to Thanksgiving before Lincoln painted his idealistic fantasy. In 1637, colonists massacred the Pequots in what became known as the Pequot War. On May 26, 1637, Puritans attacked about 700 Pequots that had gathered for the annual Green Corn Dance. The Natives were ordered to leave the building in which they were gathered, and as they approached, the Puritans shot them and cut them into pieces. Those that did not come out were burned alive inside the building. On that day, the English captain John Mason and Commandeer John Underhill claimed that “to see them [Indians] frying in the fire, and the streams of their blood quenching the same … the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice to the great delight to the Pilgrims”. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared the next day, “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women, and children”.
It is preposterous to represent the relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans in any positive light. After the abhorrent acts of the Pilgrims and other colonists, this portion of American history should be viewed as a scar upon our past and grieved. Indeed, in 1970, the United American Indians of New England established Thanksgiving as its National Day of Mourning. The fact that the same day is celebrated by Americans is a blatant exercise of racism and saddens many Native Americans across the country.
Thanksgiving is also a damaging cultural component of the educational system, especially in the earlier years. Children in elementary school often learn the commercialized, romanticized lie that is the “Thanksgiving Story” and carry this image of Native Americans as “savages” well into their adult lives. Many schools even act out the alleged Thanksgiving story, including handmade headdresses and stereotypical Indian costumes that do not reflect the culture of the Wampanoags and generalize Native Americans as only one culture. Many Thanksgiving cards and decorations also have pictures of stereotypical Native Americans as imagined by white graphic designers with no knowledge of the culture. If any other minority group was involved, people would be outraged and such ignorant displays of racism would long since have been abolished, or at least removed from mainstream culture.
I’m not saying there’s nothing good about Thanksgiving. It’s important to spend time with family and to be thankful for life’s blessings. However, we should be doing those things every day. There’s nothing harmful about a festive get together, but a cultural celebration of a stain upon our culture’s past is insensitive and ignorant. Many people have good intentions, but they must be educated first, especially when they are young and first learning the stories that have shaped our society for better and for worse.
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Thumbnail photo courtesy of @element5digital from Unsplash.com
Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.