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On Thanksgiving: Its History And Legacy Today

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

by Beba Heron

The fourth Thursday of the month of November has long stood as the marker for the holiday Thanksgiving. This holiday has been celebrated on and off since the year 1789 and became a national holiday in 1863 through a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time in which families, friends, and even communities get together and reflect on the things that we should be grateful for. Thanksgiving in the American mainstream is a day for us to be mindful of the things that we have and take time to appreciate those around us. But actually, Thanksgiving’s past is not this quaint, and its legacy today doesn’t recognize its true history.

The United States is a nation built off of colonization. The national understanding of how brutal that colonization and the founding of this country was to Native Americans is not understood. Instead, U.S. students from a young age are taught the seemingly happy history of a man named Christopher Colombus, who sailed across the sea from Europe and “discovered” America. In schools, we are taught to think of Thanksgiving as a time to celebrate Columbus’s arrival when, supposedly, the Native peoples of the United States came together with the colonizers to share a meal and treat each other as equals. However, this simple and inaccurate depiction of that time is anything but true.

Thanksgiving, we are told, is the story of how friendly Native people from the Wampanoag Nation helped the malnourished and sick white people fresh off the Mayflower to cultivate crops in order to survive. To celebrate the white pilgrims’ successful survival of a year (since the Native people lent them a helping hand) there was a three day long feast thrown, which both groups attended.

But there was something else that happened around that time. The Wampanoag people were being repeatedly disrespected by the same pilgrims that they had helped. Settlers had been trespassing into Native land and violating the territorial agreements the two parties had set up. The settlers ended up executing several Wampanoag men at one point, resulting in a series of raids on the pilgrim’s villages by the tribe. War was officially declared by the New England Confederation of Colonies in 1675. The Narragansett Nation (a tribe nearby) was drawn into the war along with other surrounding colonies and suffered devastating losses—nearly 600 of their warriors were killed. The war lasted three years and at the end, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe’s head was cut off and displayed on a pike for two and a half decades in Plymouth, and his supporters sold into slavery.

The real, deep, and brutal history of the time surrounding Thanksgiving is not at the front of mainstream American thought. And this lack of education on Native American history—which is American history—is a problem that goes beyond just Thanksgiving’s past. There is a general lack of understanding of important historical events regarding the relationship this country has with the Native communities here. We don’t learn about the assassinations of members of the American Indian Movement at the hands of the FBI, or Native activists’ surveillance by COINTELPRO. Nor is there general education about the massacre at Wounded Knee and its later occupation. Or the boarding schools and “re-education” that Native people were forced to go through just a few generations ago. We don’t talk about the genocide of Native Americans that have occurred at the hands of the U.S. federal government. Even recent events, like the controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline have not been woven into the nation’s language when it comes to talking about the horrors that they have committed against the Native people here.

This nation and its poor treatment of Native American people — both historically and currently—is not something that is acknowledged by the government or our educational curriculums. And thus, the holiday’s branding as a time to “celebrate the things we are grateful for” without confronting the brutal history surrounding Native American people’s plight is silencing. It makes us as a national community overlook the horrors of the past and therefore not demand that the federal government pay reparations for the horrible things they’ve done and right their wrongs. The American mainstream wants us to look back on Thanksgiving as being a time in which the colonizers and tribes got along well and were able to coexist peacefully. This is the idea that is advertised and taught to children, the people who need to be learning what actually happened so as not to repeat the past.

While the idea of being thankful for something isn’t bad, it shouldn’t be the thing that is associated with Thanksgiving. Treating this holiday as a happy time and disassociating it from its bloody past isn’t creating any meaningful change for Native people. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the real history surrounding Thanksgiving and also real action on the side of the federal government into righting their wrongs—starting with listening to the demands of Native communities.


Beba Heron is a running start student at South Seattle College and youth editor for the South End Stories Youth Blog. Sofia loves learning about political theory and thinking about how she/they/he can apply what they know to the world around them to make change. In particular, Sofia is interested in how communities of color are affected by policy, and how global capitalism lays the foundation for inequality in our society.

Header image attributed to Alex G. under a Creative Commons License.

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