Where schools were once teaching about the colonizers and their beliefs, practices and customs during Thanksgiving, they are now teaching about the Wampanoag tribe, genocide and the systematic oppression millions of Indigenous people still face. And they’re in the right to do so, because a large portion of what generations of children grew up believing about Thanksgiving are lies.
Although Thanksgiving can serve as a time of thankfulness for family or accomplishments, a number of Native Americans in New England, particularly those in Massachusetts, don’t see it that way. Since 1970, activists in Plymouth have gathered to celebrate the National Day of Mourning, a day of remembrance for the 17th-century mass killing and abuse of Native American people and their lands.
According to United American Indians of New England, the “real” Thanksgiving was not in 1621 but 1637 when Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to have a celebration feast for the murder of over 400 Pequot men, women and children in Mystic, Connecticut. The tragedy is most commonly known at the Pequot Massacre.
But whether or not you believe that version of one of the United States’ most celebrated holidays doesn’t matter, because the oppression of Indigenous peoples continues today.
About 15% of Navajos living in the Navajo Nation don’t have piped water in their homes, estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2020. And despite the fact that 5.6 million Native Americans only account for 1.7% of the U.S. population, they experience much higher rates of substance abuse than other groups. Even more, contaminated water, crippling poverty and traveling 100-plus miles looking for something to eat is a reality on many Native American reservations.
Reservations have been called concentration camps by the very people they are meant to serve. When President Andrew Jackson initiated a series of forced displacements that killed over 4,000 out of 15,000 Cherokees, known to history as the Trail of Tears, tens of thousands of Native Americans were relocated to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), forcefully driven away from their ancestral homelands.
Now, they become victims of crime and suicide. According to the FBI, the violent crime rate in about 200 Native American reservations is about three times the national average. Some areas are so remote from law enforcement that crime goes unreported. Difficulties even lie outside the reservations with 710 Indigenous people, 57% women and girls, having been reported missing in Wyoming in the past decade, said a report from the University of Wyoming.
Across all ages, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for Native Americans in the U.S. An analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said that, since 1999, the suicide rate among American Indian and Alaska Native women and men has increased by 139% and 71%, respectively. According to a report by National Institute of Justice, nearly 84% of Native American women experience violence in their lifetime and, in 2018, the National Violence Resource Center stated that more than a third of women who have been victims of rape have contemplated suicide.
Although culture remains rich within a number of reservations, years of cultural genocide have also impacted Native communities with 75 languages near extinction and with American schools ignoring their eradication. Most of the 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers are over the age of 60, putting the language in a state of emergency. Without enough funding to pursue language learning programs, it is likely that other Native languages will follow as well.
The oppression of Native Americans hits close to home too. The University of Connecticut exists on Native territory. Land-grant institutions, such as UConn, have profited off of Indigenous lands since the Morrill Act of 1862 which, through lopsided treaties and seizures, expropriated Indigenous land to states in order to fund universities, according to the Pulitzer Center. And UConn, unlike Yale University, does not even have a Native American Cultural Center, just a program. There is very little recognition concerning the history of the lands so many students and staff walk on every day.
Other than celebrating this Thanksgiving with the idea that early colonists’ actions no longer impact Native American communities today, why not celebrate recognizing that history should not continue to be the story of the oppressors? It should be about providing meaningful resources to those whose cultures, languages, families and traditions were robbed.
Cover photo by United American Indians of New England via Instagram.