If you grew up in America, you very likely learned that the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful coming together of colonial settlers and the Native American tribes for a shared meal in 1621. We now recognize this day and gather with family and friends to share food, watch the Macy’s parade, and play football in the backyard.
Despite what we were taught in school as children, I think we all probably know by now that Christopher Columbus is in the bad place . . .
BUT similarly, did you know that the traditional Thanksgiving narrative we’ve been taught is deceptively sunny and, flat out wrong, as well?!
As David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, much of that story is a myth riddled with historical inaccuracies. Silverman argues that the telling and retelling of these falsehoods is deeply harmful to the Wampanoag Indians whose lives and society were forever damaged after the English arrived in Plymouth. Native people didn’t sit down with colonizers to share a meal together, nor were they invited.
The problem with a peaceful Thanksgiving narrative is that it paints a picture of the Wampanoag people essentially handing over their land in a big welcome dinner to the colonizers.
Rather, historians say that the meeting of the Europeans and Wampanoag was fraught with political tension. This meeting came after years of bloody interactions between native tribes and colonizers, as well as disease.
The harms of these interactions are still felt by native peoples. Our government created policies meant to eliminate native peoples’ existence. This created intentional, systemic trauma designed to silence native people.
For example, it was government policy to take native children from their parents and become “re-educated” – they were forbidden to speak their language and practice their religion. (So much for the whole “land of the free” thing).
Because of this “re-education”, native peoples’ contributions are left out of textbooks, their history erased, and their voices have been historically silenced. They are also largely talked about in a past sense (but there are 210 indigenous languages still spoke in the US and Canada!).
Steven Peters, a spokesman for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, says that “the only way forward is to understand the history the way that it happened.” He and other Mashpee and Herring Pond Wampanoag tribe members have been working to elevate the history of the indigenous people who lived in the region for thousands of years before the Pilgrims arrived. It’s not a fun story, he admits, but telling it brings empathy back in the direction to those that were harmed – the Wampanoag Tribe. And out of the 69 tribes of Wampanoag people who lived near where the colonizers landed, only three still live there – the Herring Pond, the Aquinnah and the Mashpee, plus a band of Assonet peoples still live there. Troy Currence, a medicine man with the Herring Pond Tribe states, “we survived. We’re still here. We have a chance to reclaim our language and our history and re-educate people. We didn’t go away, we adapted.”
I admit, I was an adult before I learned the truth behind the atrocities surrounding Thanksgiving. But once you know, you do better.
Should you still celebrate Thanksgiving?
There’s no harm in giving thanks for your family, food, and friends and being together with your loved ones. But perhaps this year, we use this time to support indigenous peoples, too.
Here are some concrete actions you can take this Thanksgiving to learn more about the truth of Thanksgiving and support the native people whose lands we now occupy.
- Find out what native land you’re living on (I live in Denver, on lands stolen from Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and Ute tribes).
- Colonial feasts on stolen land are at the price of indigenous people going hungry. Did you know that 1 in 4 native homes don’t have enough food? The reason is that native people aren’t able to rely on their traditional farming skills because of land dispossession and resource extraction (namely, fossil fuels).
- Look up what native land you live on and look for organizations in your area to donate food to (a simple google search will help you find native food banks in your area).
- Learn more about how native people refer to themselves.
- Read books by native authors! I recommend:
- Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution by Oren Lyons
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dubar-Ortiz
- You can find a list of books by indigenous people here and recommendations from the First Nations Development Institute here.
- Purchase gifts from Native-owned businesses.
- Teach your kids the historical story – and read children’s books by native authors
- And for all that is holy, if you find out that your kid’s school is going to put on a “Pilgrims and Indians” Thanksgiving play, SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN.
- Educate yourself while scrolling – look up indigenous accounts on Instagram and Facebook!
- Listen to indigenous music and artists (see below for an awesome DJ rec.)
- Take a moment during dinner with your family (or, via Zoom since it’s not safe to gather this year), and talk about what happened to indigenous peoples.
- Discuss how settler colonialism is the social, political, and economic system that Europeans brought with them to this continent that turns land into profit, dispossessing Native peoples from the land through forced removals, military massacres, genocide, sterilization and forced assimilation.
Remember that non-native people benefit EVERY DAY from the removal and genocide of Indigenous people and that Indigenous people are STILL HERE.