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Everything you wanted to know about American Thanksgiving…

18 Nov 2020 1:59 PM | Emily Kawasaki (Administrator)

For many people who attended elementary school in the United States, the tune “In the year 1620, the pilgrims came over…” might bring back memories and conjure up images of a harmonious multicultural potluck dinner complete with roasted turkey, cranberries and mashed potatoes. Sadly, the story that is told about the first Thanksgiving leaves out an important detail, specifically the experience of the Wampanoag, the Indigenous people living in the region at that time. The unfortunate accuracy of the quote “history is written by the winners” has deprived Indigenous and Native peoples the opportunity to talk about their experiences and perspectives, and the profound impact that the historical events in question have had on their culture and community. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, this article hopes to dispel many of the Thanksgiving myths, tell the story from another perspective, and remind us that it is important to give thanks for honesty, empathy, sensitivity and community. Here is some of the recorded, researched and verified information to give us a deeper understanding of the historical realities:

  • The Wampanoag have lived in southeastern Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years.
  • Before 1616, the Wampanoag (“People of the First Light”) were a loose confederation of several tribes that numbered 50,000 to 100,000. They occupied 69 villages scattered throughout southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. (Wikipedia)
  • Between 1616 and 1619, the Wampanoag suffered from a deadly epidemic brought by European traders. The epidemic killed thousands, up to two-thirds, of them. Many also had been captured and sold as slaves. (Schilling, 2017)
  • The "Pilgrims" were the English settlers who came to North America on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts, named after the final departure port of Plymouth.
  • In 1620, the English settlers arrived on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts.
  • The Wampanoag tribe encountered the English settlers when they landed in Provincetown harbor and explored the eastern coast of Cape Cod and when they continued on to Patuxet (Plymouth) to establish Plymouth Colony.
  • The Wampanoag watched the English settlers come ashore and didn’t deem them a threat because they saw women and children. The Wampanoag had seen many ships before that carried male traders and fishermen. But they had not seen women and children before. In the Wampanoag culture, men would never bring women and children into harmful situations. So, they viewed the English settlers as peaceful for that reason. (Toensing, 2017)
  • The English settlers settled in an area that was once Patuxet, a Wampanoag village, which had been abandoned in 1616 because of the deadly plague.

  • In their first encounter with the Wampanoag people, the English settlers stole from the tribe’s winter provisions.

  • Sometime between mid-September and early November in 1621, the English settlers held a three-day feast, which was considered a harvest celebration following a successful planting of maize (multicolored flint corn). (Mekouar, 2018)

  • During the feast in 1621, English settlers shot guns and cannons in celebration. The noise attracted the attention of the Wampanoag living nearby. The Wampanoag sent 90 men to investigate and find out if the English settlers were planning an attack on their village. When the Wampanoag arrived, they found out through a translator that the English settlers were merely celebrating the harvest. The Wampanoag stay nearby and observed to ensure that this explanation was indeed true. (Toensing, 2017)

  • Later on, the sachem (chief) Ousamequin offered the English settlers an entente, primarily as a way to protect the Wampanoags against their rivals, the Narragansetts. (Menjivar)

  • In 1636, an English settler was found murdered in his boat. The Pequot were blamed and the English settlers burned Pequot villages in retaliation.

  • The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men. (Juul, 2014)

  • In 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. The creation of holiday with an idealistic Thanksgiving narrative was for strategic reasons, specifically as a socio-political move to try to reunite the North and the South after the Civil War and establish something to unite families who had been divided by the Civil War. (Mekouar, 2018)

In 1970, Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James was invited to give a speech at a banquet celebrating the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. At the celebration, he refused to glorify the myth that the Pilgrims had brought culture, friendship and peace to North America. He hoped to speak about the historical inaccuracy of the story and how that story perpetuated disparate realities for Native and Indigenous peoples. After reading a draft of his talking points, the dinner’s organizers decided to cancel Wamsutta’s appearance, which prompted him to start the National Day of Mourning. (United American Indians of New England, 2020)

Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) and the local Wampanoag community have celebrated the National Day of Mourning as resistance to Thanksgiving. This annual alternative holiday is held at Plymouth Rock, MA. The National Day of Mourning coincides with the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, which takes place on Alcatraz Island, an important Native American site. The Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony is a large cultural event that has been held annually since 1975 and commemorates the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement occupation of 1969. (Nobiss, 2018) UAINE has worked tirelessly to bring greater awareness to the problems facing Native Americans today, rather than dwell on the sins of the past.

It is understandable that Indigenous and Native people view Thanksgiving through a different lens, given their experiences of colonization, violence and oppression. However, this doesn’t mean that they lack holidays that focus on being thankful. Giving thanks is an important part of Native and Indigenous peoples’ spiritual life. Native and Indigenous people celebrate a number of festivals throughout the year, which are often linked to seasons, animals, harvesting and crops. For example, Green Corn Festivals are held in the late summer and are tied to the ripening of the corn crops.

The takeaway is this – “We should be grateful and thankful for all that we have, but not at the expense of ignoring an entire race of people, their culture, and their history… Let us give some thought to the Native people, learn from their struggles, and embolden ourselves to stand up against racism and genocide in all forms.” (Broken Mystic) “Increasing numbers of people are seeking alternatives to such holidays as Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. They are coming to the conclusion that, if we are ever to achieve some sense of community, we must first face the truth about the history of this country and the toll that history has taken on the lives of millions of Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian, and poor and working-class white people.” (James and Munro, 1998) By taking a decolonizing approach to reflecting and talking about Thanksgiving, people can de-romanticize this holiday, reject the myths of Thanksgiving and harmful stereotypes about Native people, and engage in Native perspectives that recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples and their contemporary presence in 21st-century America. (Wieck, 2018)

As you celebrate Thanksgiving, here are some simple, impactful suggestions from Jackie Menjivar that you can do to celebrate Indigenous and Native cultures and help combat Native erasure:

  Written by: Emily Kawasaki

Works Cited


  • 23 Nov 2020 6:37 AM | Adrienne Sweetwater
    EXCELLENT article Emily! Thank you so very much for discussing the "underbelly" of such an important US holiday and highlighting the violent impact to native communities. I learned so much and will be able to portray a more accurate historical description to my family in Brazil. Much appreciated!
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