To the many communities in the United States and around the world that celebrate it, Thanksgiving holds a variety of unique meanings. Hailing from a family of immigrants who seldom have the opportunity to come together due to a vast geographic spread, Thanksgiving, particularly the time students and most workers get off, is one of the few occasions that my family has to celebrate each other as a big unit. Whether families, formal or found, are gathering from across the country or across the world; whether the arrival of the in-laws is dreaded or celebrated; whether the night is filled with laughter or half-drunk political arguments, Thanksgiving’s equally quirky and hair-pulling social conventions are specially tempered to remind us what we value about family, community and life in general. That is why it’s all the more important that we let Thanksgiving remain a tradition of the past.
A time for togetherness for some communities, dressed in autumnal and early colonial-era aesthetics in advertising and decor, coincides with a deep legacy of pain and remembrance for others. Since the 1970s, Indigenous people in North America have made the trip to Plymouth Rock to participate in the National Day of Mourning, “a solemn, spiritual and highly political day” to mourn ancestors lost to genocide, land theft and other forms of colonial violence, according to United American Indians of New England. These scars were caused by precisely the same historical events that Thanksgiving purports to celebrate; however, while one has portrayed peaceful relations between the English settlers of Plymouth and the Wampanoag nation culminated in “the first Thanksgiving,” the other commemorates a broader, more authentic history of settlement, war making, extermination and other tactics of genocide. This history of massive violence is inherent to the modern holiday of Thanksgiving.
According to Native historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Thanksgiving stands with Columbus Day as national mythologies which have papered over the true history and settlement and genocide so fundamental to the American project. In her book “All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans,” Dunbar-Ortiz dispels the myth that the first Thanksgiving between the Plymouth settlers and Wampanaog people was a gregarious celebration of mutual gratitude. Rather, it was a meeting of uninvited colonizers and cautious Indigenous benefactors in order to maintain a tenuous political alliance.
In 1621, when English Puritan settlers arrived at 2,000-person village of Patuxet, which is now known as Plymouth, Mass., the Wampanoag had been active farmers throughout the land. Consequently, the English arrived to well-maintained fields primed for the cultivation of squash, beans and maize. In March of 1621, after robbing homes and graves in Patuxet, settlers encountered a sachem, or local leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, who, in turn, called for head Wampanoag sachem Massasoit to Patuxet. Massassoit obliged, and accompanied by an English-speaking former slave named Tisquantum — known to most schoolchildren as Squanto. After negotiating a formal treaty with the colonists to ease “the shifting balance of power in the Indigenous world,” the Wampanoag imparted their agricultural knowledge to settlers so that they could survive through the fall harvest. The English’s harvest celebration, to which Indigenous locals were hesitantly invited, is what inspired contemporary conceptions of Thanksgiving — although Dunbar-Ortiz notes that the phrase “thanks giving” was never recorded in colonial diaries at the time.
What proceeded 50 years later was the bloodiest war ever fought in what is now the United States: King Philip’s War. Sparked by Puritan land grabs and the execution of three Wampanoag men by settlers, King Philip’s War — named after the English nickname for the Wampanoag leader Metacom — killed as much as 40% of the Wampanoag nation and led to the enslavement of many Indigenous men. It is clear that the supposed exchange of gratitude from the settlers was nothing more than a pretext to establish the roots of their colonial project. This colonial project was predetermined and would be achieved through whatever violent means necessary.
Although Thanksgiving has been observed by Americans since declarations by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in their respective eras, there was no mention of the connection between the nationally-recognized holiday and the history of the Wampanoags and English settlers was until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. The mythology of Thanksgiving assigns a fictional narrative of a real-life genocide to a holiday that many celebrate independently of its historical meaning; however, while family traditions seem harmless, there is still harm exacted by the enduring belief that Indigenous people jovially cooperated with settlers more than 400 years ago. The present conditions of a genocide that exterminated nearly 12 million Indigenous people through war, environmental destruction and colonization, erased millennia of culture through forced assimilation and caused the systemic underdevelopment of treaty lands not violated by colonialism are apparent before our very eyes. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which allows Indigenous adoptees the chance to remain with their extended family and tribal community in order to prevent family separation and redress cultural genocide. Accept it or not, ICWA and its potential overturn by the Supreme Court are both consequences of lasting colonialism and anti-indigenous racism.
At this year’s Thanksgiving table, if you choose to celebrate, acknowledge the myth of Thanksgiving and the remaining impacts of colonialism and Indigenous genocide that the story serves to whitewash. For many centuries across many cultures, the fall has been a time to give thanks to the harvest of plenty, family, community and the other gifts of the Earth. Refusing to perpetuate the narrative of colonialism, and even better, uplifting Indigenous legal and mutual aid groups like the Lakota People’s Law Project or The Red Nation will make the thanks you give ever more meaningful.