THANKSGIVING: What’s the True Story?

AUTHOR: KELLE PEARCE

According to the popular narrative, the first celebratory Thanksgiving feast was in 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, which means that 25th November 2021 marks the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving.

‘Pilgrim’ is the popular term applied to all the passengers of The Mayflower ship that departed from Plymouth, Devon in 1620. Their intention was to begin a new life away from the rules imposed by The Church of England, allowing them to ‘worship freely’. The term Pilgrim continued to be applied to other people arriving in Plymouth in those early years – so that the English people who settled Plymouth in the 1620s are generally called the Pilgrims. The original ‘settlers’ arrived on the shores of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts in Nov 1620, and their survival was only possible due to the help of local Indigenous peoples to teach them food gathering and other survival skills. 

However it’s a fact widely known by many that the story of Thanksgiving is not one of warmth, joy and sharing, but is in fact about these colonisers arriving in ‘The New World’ and the oppression & genocide of the native population.

For the thriving native societies already living there when the Europeans arrived, the settlers’ arrival to what is now known as the U.S.A and The Americas wasn’t the beginning of a new world, but the end of theirs.

Some elements of the traditional stories are true. The Mayflower did bring settlers from England to land which they colonised and renamed Plymouth, MA. In 1621, those Pilgrims did hold a three-day feast, which was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. 

However Pilgrims ‘thanksgivings’ were actually their traditional way of fasting and praying, NOT feasting. Records show several celebratory occasions that gave thanks for the massacres of Native population, including in 1637 when Massachusetts Colony Governor John Winthrop declared a day of thanksgiving after volunteers murdered 700 Pequot people. This incident is also often cited as the first official mention of a ‘thanksgiving’ ceremony, and is another commonly cited origin story for Thanksgiving.

Discussions of Thanksgiving have long been centered around the colonisers, but Native Americans had been on the land for centuries before, and the story from their perspective obviously far predates this feast. Researchers have calculated that about 60.5 million people lived in the Americas prior to European contact. When Europeans began arriving they carried foreign illnesses which killed Native people at exceedingly high rates, allowing colonisers to take over their land and also kidnap many Native Americans into slavery.

Between 1492 and 1600, 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas had died. That means about 55 million people perished because of violence and disease. In the years between 1630–1642, about 25,000 further European colonisers arrived while a devastating plague cut the remaining native population again by more than half. 

By the close of the 19th century, fewer than 238,000 Native Americans remained. Most had been forced into reservations which were, and still are, owned and managed by the federal government. Still today thanks to the legacy of federal control, reservations have complicated legal and property systems that are detrimental to economic growth. Despite containing valuable natural resources worth nearly $1.5 trillion, according to a recent estimate. The vast majority of these resources remain undeveloped because the federal government gets in the way.

To put it plainly: Still today, the U.S continues the bureaucracy that has intentionally kept Native Americans largely in poverty whilst the majority of the population every year celebrates a holiday built upon stories which seek to bypass the details of the massacre and genocide of their ancestors.

 

“Thanksgiving is nothing less than an annual white victory lap. It’s a celebration of aggressive Christian domination and imperialism. Any other description is P.C.  The holiday, as presented, is an affront to inexorable truth and history as it occurred. Indeed, the Thanksgiving narrative belies the rape and murder and genocide that was committed against this continent’s first peoples – men, women, and children… To bury the truth behind what Thanksgiving means to Native Americans does nothing but set us back as a country. It’s time this nation faces the facts about its actions, its crimes – the ones they’ve committed, and continue to commit.”

Simon Moya-Smith, 33, citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, a journalist and activist. 

 

 So rather than the fairytale version of History that is accepted in the U.S and around the world, today many Native Americans will instead be honouring their ancestors. Many gather at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day in a ceremony that has taken place annually  since 1970. 

It’s a day of remembrance, spiritual connection and protest against the racism and oppression that Native Americans have suffered and continue to experience. 

Sources and further reading:

https://www.history.com/news/native-americans-genocide-united-states

https://www.businessinsider.com/climate-changed-after-europeans-killed-indigenous-americans-2019-2?r=US&IR=T

https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/03/13/5-ways-the-government-keeps-native-americans-in-poverty/?sh=1ca77c4a2c27

https://www.history.com/news/native-americans-genocide-united-states

https://www.insider.com/history-of-thanksgiving-2017-11

https://www.perc.org/2014/02/18/unlocking-the-wealth-of-indian-nations-overcoming-obstacles-to-tribal-energy-development/

https://www.thecut.com/article/how-to-support-native-american-indigenous-communities.html