Thanksgiving – what it really means to Native Americans
By Brandon Thoms and Johnny Allen
Thanksgiving is a time of year when families gather to give thanks for the many blessings we are afforded as Americans. Images of smiling people, turkey dinners with all the fixings and American football are played to drive home the warm comfort of the American dream. School children are fed images of American Indians and Pilgrims sharing camaraderie and good feelings. Classroom lessons lean toward highlighting the struggles and endurance of the Pilgrims – who were Europe’s version of political and religious refugees – reinforcing the bravery of those who “founded” the New World.
This has been the standard for the past several generations in America. Goodwill and peace between the Pilgrims and Indians, gift wrapped for our personal enjoyment.
The uncomfortable truth is that American Indians in the area of New England and the newcomers, were very suspicious of one another at best. Historic accounts say colonists regarded the local Natives as filthy, uncivilized, satanic heathens.
Many of us are taught the common belief that Native Americans dolefully supplemented the pilgrims’ struggle in early-American colonies. In any school room in the USA today, teachers may continue to preach an existing, beneficial alliance between these two groups of people. However, in light of the possibility of any quaint union between early settlers and Indians, there remains a darker reality to this history – a history consisting of violence and bloodshed.
Long before any “Thanksgiving” dinner, Europeans slaughtered, pillaged, raped and enslaved the Indians they came into contact with, often “exporting” them back to England to sell into the labor trades. This brutal truth, coupled with the fact that the American Indian immune system had no resistance to smallpox and other European diseases, explains how Tribal populations which flourished for thousands of years, were wiped from the face of earth within the first five to 10 years of contact.
If asked what the first “Thanksgiving” meant, most people may respond with the conventional theory that the Indians helped the starving Pilgrims survive the first winter in the New World. This image has been fashioned over time and has become a default projection among contemporary society.
For the most part, Indian people have also embraced this false portrait of American history; a more true concept of giving thanks today is now shrouded by these Euro-American fabrications.
Around the time shortly before the first official “Thanksgiving”, a horrific event unfolded in what is now the town of Mystic, Connecticut. A local Tribe – the Pequot – were celebrating their own “Thanksgiving”, which was known to them as the green corn festival. In the predawn hours a band of Puritans (although not Pilgrims, the Puritans were none the less new to North America) descended on a Tribal village and shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, woman and children.
This slaughter, according to Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was the real origin of “Thanksgiving” – so proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop in gratitude for God’s destruction of the defenseless Pequot village. Thereafter massacres of the Indians were routinely followed by celebrations referred to as “days of thanksgiving.”
These historic accounts magnify the very real issue of Indian mascots, culturally responsive representation, systemic racism, cultural appropriation and the continued need for accurate portrayal of Native Americans in contemporary society. With November being Native American Heritage Month, it is a great time to draw attention to the need for greater awareness of just who Indian people really are and their true history.
It is also a great opportunity to set people straight on the real meaning of Thanksgiving. Modern American Indians, and Americans in general, have every reason to celebrate Thanksgiving – giving thanks for all the comforts and spoils of living in America. Celebrating the opportunities and freedoms we enjoy is something we should make time to do. However, it should also be a time for reflection, a time for giving to the less fortunate and a time to correct a misguided belief.
As we prepare for turkey dinners, good times with family and American football, let’s be sure to give thanks for this miracle we call life.