Thanksgiving is often a time when people reflect on what they have to be thankful for—family, friends, good health, etc. For many, these are considered blessings, and there is much historical evidence to suggest that Thanksgiving developed as a religious holiday.
For example, in his 1863 Proclamation of Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln said: “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” The Pilgrims—who were religious separatists that initially fled to the Netherlands—such as William Bradford, wrote of their thanks to God. And, they viewed Squanto, the English-speaking Indian—originally from the Pawtuxet people who forged the relationship between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims—as a conduit of God.
Thanksgiving is also a day to think about America’s history. There is much debate around the factual accuracy of the retelling of the first Thanksgiving, including when it first occurred, what was served at this meal, why the colonists were starving, and whether the Indians were invited or just happened to stop by!
In his 1985 article, The Great Thanksgiving Hoax, Richard Marbury acknowledged that the Pilgrims held a feast and thanked God for their food, but said that the reason they were starving was due to their socialism, rather than due to their inability to grow crops. He suggests that the Pilgrims were lazy and thieving until they adopted a capitalist, free market approach to their colony—an interesting take that has not been widely reported on. Others, such as John Bickford, in his 2019 article on how to teach first graders about Thanksgiving, notes that only half of the colony were Pilgrims, the others were laborers—also called Strangers— who were looking for a fresh start and were unconnected with the Church.
Even with the details being questioned, it does seem that much of the general history is true. The Pilgrims arrived sometime in 1620 and faced severe hardships, which resulted in half of their members dying from disease, cold, and starvation. The Wampanoag Indians, after watching the new arrivals, decided to make contact with them. Initially, Wampanoag Chief Massasoit sent Squanto, but later—on what was to be Thanksgiving—arrived himself with around 90 of his tribesmen. This decision benefitted both the Pilgrims and the Indians. The Indians taught the Pilgrims where to fish, how to utilize the land to farm Indian crops, and the general geography of the region. And, for these teachings, the Indians have been seen as instrumental to the survival of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. The Wampanoag tribe benefitted in the form of much-needed protection from the Narragansett tribe—a stronger tribe that had fewer recent deaths than the Wampanoags. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians forged a cooperative relationship that resulted in a three-day Thanksgiving feast in either the late fall or early winter of 1621.
This could have been the end of the story—albeit with details added and deleted as a result of historical scholarship.
However, many scholars and American Indian activists decided more than a half century ago not to improve the historical accuracy of Thanksgiving, but to rewrite history. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving today has been hijacked by post-modern American Indian activists who wish to erase the holiday and replace it with a “National Day of Mourning.” Universities across the U.S., such as University of Massachusetts and University of Michigan, seem to embrace this distorted version of history. Unlike Thanksgiving that is rooted in actual history, the “National Day of Mourning” is rooted in identity politics and activism. Thus, truth is unimportant to the “National Day of Mourning” movement. The “National Day of Mourning” movement started in the late 1960s and could be said to really commence with the Occupation of Alcatraz on Thanksgiving 1969.
The hijacking continued in 1970 when Frank James, a self-described Wampanoag music teacher and president of the Federated Eastern Indian League, was invited by the Massachusetts Department of Commerce to give a talk on Thanksgiving.
This invitation was rescinded when the Department of Commerce saw that his speech focused on the false narrative of the enslavement of American Indians and broken promises, coupled with criticism of historical stereotypes of Indians and the poverty that many Indians live in. And, in 1974, The New York Times published an op-ed by James L. West, of the Cheyenne tribe, who claimed that colonialists attempted genocide and that Thanksgiving serves to emasculate American Indians—he called for an end to the celebration.
Other scholars have claimed that the Pilgrims desecrated and looted the Wampanoag graves. Archaeologist Marshall Becker, however, found no such evidence and has, indeed, found historical evidence to refute these claims. Becker notes that grave looting has occurred in the Americas by both American Indians and Europeans, but the evidence for looting in Plymouth just doesn’t exist.
The story of Thanksgiving, and much of the popular retelling of American history, is actually generous to a fault to American Indians. The Pilgrims viewed the Indians as sent from God—they treated them as they would any others, largely due to their Christian faith. And, Squanto and Massasoit have been portrayed as honorable and have been held in high esteem. Thus, it has never been true that Thanksgiving praises European colonists at the expense of Indians—even lessons for students in education journals as early as 1896 portrayed Massasoit as a great king whose men helped the Pilgrims survive.
Evidence of this narration is ignored by American Indian activists who wish to use the holiday to decolonize and indigenize curriculum from elementary school to university classrooms in a way that denies the successes of America, specifically, and Western civilization, generally.
Thanksgiving is portrayed as a reminder of colonization, disease, and broken treaties. Activists, such as Frank James, lament the portrayal of American Indians as “savage, illiterate, uncivilized animals”—a portrayal that is largely absent in the retelling of Thanksgiving history. Yet, American Indians were illiterate—thus, we have no way of knowing their views of the first Thanksgiving, even their oral traditions do not go back that far.
Yet, American Indians have much to be thankful for—upon their arrival in the New World, Europeans encountered what was essentially a Stone Age culture. Intertribal warfare was common, which included enslavement of enemies, torture, and human sacrifice. There were no written laws or treaties because there was no written language. In many cases, tribes didn’t even share a common language. Mortality from starvation and disease was exceedingly high and may have even sometimes led to cannibalism in the Southwest—cannibalism related to warfare has been documented throughout the Americas. Most individuals did not even live to be middle-aged. Upon European arrival, some diseases that were previously unknown, such as smallpox, did cause high mortality among the American Indians, but it is unlikely this led to a continent-wide epidemic due to the low population density. The number of deaths from diseases brought over by the Europeans are likely overcounted.
Europeans also purchased land, which is now being claimed to have been stolen. Yet, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony sometimes paid multiple times for the land since multiple tribes claimed ownership— American Indians didn’t own land and were often violently pushed out by other tribes who didn’t purchase the land from the tribes they were replacing.
American Indians also got far more from the Europeans than the Europeans got from them.
At Plymouth, the Indians brought the Pilgrims information about the geography, deer, eel, and other foods But once the Pilgrims were able to provide for themselves, the Indians had little to offer—just baskets and furs. Furs were hugely important, as they were the means of obtaining European manufactured goods, including textiles— that were considered of supreme importance—and guns—although the Pilgrims were reluctant to provide the Indians with firearms. Indians also received from colonists: glass, metal, horses, literacy, and peace. Also, the trade integrated Indians into the emerging world economy, to their great long-term benefit. Peace arose because the Pilgrims insisted that grievances be settled through proper channels. The Pilgrims worked out a treaty that led to 50 years of peace between and within tribes—a peace that was disrupted by Indian rebellion when the colonists wished to expand.
Much of what is viewed as American Indian culture has actually been the direct result of Europeans’ arrival in the New World. For instance, American Indians received horses from the Spanish colonists, which improved their hunting successes. Although recent DNA research has tried to overturn this well-documented historic event with the discovery of Spanish horses, one with evidence of changes from metal bits, in areas where the Spaniards had not yet made contact. Thereby, the researchers argue that this provides evidence of an ancient horse culture, otherwise they would not have been able to utilize domestic horses without direct interaction with the Spaniards. Nonetheless, it is most likely that these horses were runaways and there is no evidence that the American Indians rode the horses. Tools and weapons, such as steel knives and tomahawks, were greatly improved by the introduction of metal from Europeans. After European contact, Indians of the Middle and Northern Atlantic seaboard no longer used objects or ornaments that they crafted from native copper; they desired and used European-brought glass beads, mirrors, kettles, axes, hoes, and even cloth.
Their artisans also quickly adopted many European materials such as vermillion, ribbon, and glass beads. Thus, even their art has benefitted from European’ arrival. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has an exhibit called “Art of Native America”, which is mostly comprised of beadwork. The first line of the description includes: “The brilliance of Native American artists from across the United States and Canada is affirmed in this installation of historical and contemporary works.” The “brilliance” comes in large part from materials provided by Europeans. For instance, glass beads used in all of the beaded artwork were unknown to American Indians; these early glass beads actually came often from places like Venice, Italy. Should the Venetians ask for the artifacts to be repatriated, since the beads are from their lands? And, perhaps, Europeans should be complaining about cultural appropriation!
In a 2020 New York Times article, Robert Magnan, the director of the Fort Peck Tribe’s fish and game department—who doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving—stated that “Thanksgiving is kind of like Columbus Day for Native people. Why would we celebrate people who tried to destroy us?” Yet, he and the other American Indians with him, while getting ready to hunt buffalo, took the time to “bless a thirty-aught-six hunting rifle” before they rode out in a “convoy of four-by-four trucks”—without Europeans, it is unlikely that American Indians would have ever developed rifles, much less trucks. Thus, rather than blessing the rifle, he could have celebrated Thanksgiving as a time to be grateful for all the bounties in their lives. It is unknowable if Indian culture would have evolved to provide them with such luxuries that are now taken for granted most of the year.
This Thanksgiving let us all take a moment before digging into the turkey—which was likely not on the first Thanksgiving menu—to reflect on the good life Western civilization has brought all of us.
Author’s Note: Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Dr. Bruce Bourque for his much-appreciated feedback.
Photo by The Everett Collection — Canva Stock