Thanksgiving – what it really means to Native Americans
By Brandon Thoms
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 struggle 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. Students learn how the Indians put down their bows, arrows and tomahawks just long enough to bring food and warm animal skins to the starving, freezing newcomers, in a brief show of humanity. It’s said the two sides feasted for some time at a long table, becoming quick friends and in turn, showing the world that Indians weren’t so bad after all. This was the very first Thanksgiving. A tale of a group of come-from-behind, against-the-odds people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made a life for themselves and their ancestors in a harsh, unfamiliar world – with the help of course of friendly wild-men.
This has been the standard for the past 150 – plus years in America.
Initially a holiday signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War, Lincoln in his own words said the day was for “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” But before Lincoln made it official, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” following a resolution of Congress (For sake of time, we won’t go into whether there were initially six presidents before Washington – all of whom were black men – but the historic claim is duly noted). Washington called it a day devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” That’s a lot of God and prayer and thankfulness to say the least.
Regardless of who made the holiday popular, in more recent times, “Thanksgiving” has become an American cornerstone of educational propaganda – one that has all but erased the genocide of an entire race of people from the public’s perception and conscious.
A convenient tale of goodwill and peace between 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 US today, teachers continue to preach an existing, beneficial alliance between these two groups of people. However, in light of the remote 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” celebration of turkey, football and shopping, Europeans slaughtered, pillaged, raped and enslaved the Indians they came into contact with, often “exporting” them back to England to sell into the slave labor trades. This brutal truth, coupled with the fact that the American Indian immune system had no resistance to smallpox and other European born diseases, explains how tribal populations which flourished for tens of thousands of years, were wiped from the face of the earth within the first five to 10 years of contact. Today, estimates state that close to 4.8 million Native Americans live within North America – what Indigenous people call “Turtle Island”. That’s just a fraction of the 112 million that lived here prior to European exploration and conquest. And no, Spaniards, Italians or Englishmen were not the first non-Natives to make it to “America.” Native Peoples’ history includes accounts of Chinese, Mongolian, African (Black) and even Nordics (Vikings) exploration to the New World centuries before 1492.
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 within the United States.
For the most part, many Indian people have also embraced this false portrait of American history and a more true concept of giving thanks today remains 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 descended on a tribal village and shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, woman and children (although themselves not Pilgrims, the Puritans were none the less new to North America just the same). The brutal marauding of tribal villages went on for several days.
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 people and their villages. 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 and logos, culturally responsive/historically accurate curriculum in schools, systemic racism, cultural appropriation, missing and murdered Indigenous women 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 every day as Thanksgiving – giving thanks for all we have, whether a lot or a little – while living in America. Celebrating the opportunities and few remaining 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. If you want to predict the future, simply look to the past. And the past which we speak of isn’t so long ago.
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. Let us give thanks for our children, our old ones, our significant others, the strength of our ancestors, as well as giving thanks for critical thought – that we can think critically enough to correct history. Giving thanks for our ability to hear, that we can listen and talk to each other respectfully – so that we may share our voice – that we open a dialogue where we set aside our egos and emotions so that we can replace the “Thanksgiving” myth with a historically accurate account of what “Thanksgiving” really means to Native Americans.