November 22, 2017 Faith

Debunking the Myth of the "First" Thanksgiving

Written by: Stephanie Valenzuela


Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Notice how the Wampanoag aren't sitting at the table.
Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Notice how the Wampanoag aren't sitting at the table.

We all know the story of Thanksgiving: in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans put aside their differences to come together for a meal that was to give thanks for the plentiful fall harvest. 

Although this version of the “first Thanksgiving” is often seen as fact, the historical reality is a much darker story— and one that isn’t often discussed around American dinner tables.

Despite being a staple in primary education, Thanksgiving is ultimately a holiday that derives much of its strength from its mystification over time. The holiday is marketed as having strong roots in the foundations of American history, but yet it is only mentioned in two primary sources from the period from which it originates. This leads some historians to believe that the fall celebration is far more important now than it was during initial colonial contact.

Like Christmas, the story behind Thanksgiving has largely been passed down through tradition and oral histories, and as each person has told this story, it has evolved.  American society has come to think of Thanksgiving as a day of unity and sharing, and while this may true be now as a standard holiday for most families, it is important to remember the real origin story of this day.

True Thanksgivings, as practiced by the Pilgrims, were days spent praying, to which Natives would never have been invited. The Thanksgiving most Americans think of was actually a fall harvest festival which lasted three days and didn’t always fall in November. This festival, rather than being a celebration of the settler’s newfound community, was motivated by a desire to exploit the Native people for their resources.

According to Vincent Schilling’s article in Indian Country Today, “soon after arriving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Pilgrims went into Indians’ dwellings and cornfields and took whatever they wanted, leaving beads behind.” In William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, he describes the Native peoples as “savage barbarians,” upon arriving in what would become New England in 1620. 

These passages are just a few glimpses into the colonial mindset and lasting repercussions it had on Native American communities. The Pilgrims affirmed their own European superiority and believed that indigenous life was not valuable or worthy of respect  the tale of Thanksgiving is the first chapter in a long history of oppression and exploitation.

For this reason, some Native communities and their allies refer to this day as “Thanks-taking”.

"Soon after arriving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Pilgrims went into Indians’ dwellings and cornfields and took whatever they wanted, leaving beads behind.”

– Vincent Schilling, correspondent of Indian Country Today

Just because Thanksgiving is widely celebrated, it does not mean that its legacy has been beneficial. The legacy of “giving” and unity between Native and non-Native communities is fictitious, and the legacy that actually holds true is one of brutalization and colonization forced on Native peoples by European settlers.

On this Thanksgiving, it would do everyone some good to remember the consequences of ethnocentricity. Native lives continue to be seen as not valuable by those in power because of white supremacy stitched into the very fabric of this country. In an age of rampant xenophobia and racism, the celebration of Thanksgiving today should do more to acknowledge the motivations of the first Thanksgiving and the real consequences of the Pilgrims’ voyage to North America.

Of course we can go on giving thanks and eating scrumptious meals, but at the end of day, we should call the day what it is: a reminder of the genocide induced by European colonists. We can carry that lesson with us and identify problematic ideologies in more commonplace events and activities. After all, the first step in dismantling white supremacy and is recognizing it.

Thanksgiving is now become a part of the American experience, that is not up for debate. But now we have the power to correctly reflect on the holiday and its true origins.