When I was a child, Thanksgiving was simple, as were many things in life. At school, we would finger-paint pilgrims and “Indians”, create construction paper hats, invent colorful DIY clay turkey sculptures, and recite fairy tales about amicable cultural exchanges between Squanto, his tribe, and the English settlers. For dinner, my mother would prepare collard greens, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, fried okra, and of course, a big ol’ turkey with extra stuffing. Out of all the classic side dishes, I think I enjoyed canned cranberry sauce the most back then. Periodically throughout the day, we would watch the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Moreover, Thanksgiving Day was one of the few times of the year that my entire family would sit down at the dinner table and enjoy a meal together. In the early 2000s, we almost never traveled outside of our Houston home, 4407 Buffalo Lake Ct, for this holiday. My father, mother, siblings, and all of my many nephews and nieces would participate in the gluttonous feast. We would have athletic competitions in the backyard, toss the football, and play indoor games as well. I have so many fond memories packed into that home and many of them tied to Thanksgiving. Our beloved neighbors, the Massaghees, would occasionally come over to exchange dishes and recipes. If we were well-behaved, my friend Brad and I were given the opportunity to play video games like “Super Smash Bros” and “Madden” after we finished our dinner. Mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving, I strangely remember my cat ‘Smoky’ aggressively scratching the front door, which was adjacent to the dining room, to notify us that she had just retrieved a newborn kitten that belonged to her feline friend ‘Sheba’ (I still don’t know why Sheba didn’t come to the door first, I mean, it was her kitten that Smoky held, but I digress).
Perhaps the most poignant point of Thanksgiving each year, actually took place prior to forkin’ up turkey and greens, when my mother would ask us to reflect on everything that we were grateful for, and to not leave out one iota of gratitude. I reflected on the past year and thanked God for my family, friends, health, happiness, and safety. However, one thing I did not reflect on in that moment was how all five of those essential aspects of well-being were utterly extirpated from my native brothers and sisters. I did not recognize the mendacious pseudo-historical stories I was inculcated with in school, or the very real terror invoked on this day in the souls of thousands of natives in the forgotten annals of history. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s no excuse.
At this point in my life, this ruminative process of self-reflection has taken an entirely new meaning in many different ways. Although I no longer celebrate Thanksgiving, I do give thanks for all things in life. Thanksgiving tradition did not teach me how to be grateful, my mother instilled those vital values in me as a youngin’. This holiday was only obliquely relevant. We should give thanks every single day, not just on a day that memorializes massacre. Today, I am fully cognizant of the historical meaning of this Thursday in November.
No more hypocrisy.
“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”
Let’s break it down.
Thanksgiving, like most American holidays, is a tradition that involves recapitulating old stories with staggering historical falsehoods. This holiday builds off of a history passed down through the generations of what happened in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where local Native Americans allegedly welcomed European pilgrims to a celebratory feast.
Contrariwise, David Silverman writes in his new book This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, that the conventional Thanksgiving story Americans have come to know and love could not be further from the truth. Furthermore, Silverman, a history professor at George Washington University, argues that the deliberate misteachings of this falsehood is injurious to the Wampanoag Indians whose civilization was destroyed forever as a result of the European visitation.
The legend goes something like this: friendly tribeless “Indians” welcome the Pilgrims to America in 1621, impart valuable knowledge and survival skills to them, enjoy a cornucopia of meats and crops for dinner with them, and then vanish from the scene. Attendees included at least 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe and the 50 or so surviving Mayflower passengers, according to TIME. The feast lasted three days, and included venison, wildfowl, and corn, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. The Wampanoags gave America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness to benefit the rest of the world. Christianity, of course, was at the center of this embryonic ‘Manifest Destiny’. However, the quintessential element of the fable is that Native people wittingly capitulated to colonialism without any bloodshed. This could not be further from the truth.
It must be noted that the term “Indian” is a misnomer given to indigenous Americans by Christopher Columbus who was oafishly confused upon landing in this unfamiliar territory and had no idea what to make of the new copper-colored faces he saw, so he crassly labeled these people Indians. Christopher Columbus is his anglicized name; the colonizer’s real Italian name was Cristoforo Colombo and Spanish name was Cristóbal Colón. On the other hand, some historians have questioned the traditional accounts surrounding Columbus' Italian origins. In fact, some historians even claim that Columbus was actually a Portuguese Jew whose real name was Salvador Fernandes Zarco.
At any rate, Columbus' explorations were essential in the spread of the Spanish language to Latin America. The colonial footprints of his voyages to the Americas have permanently marked the country of Colombia, which was named after him, as were the Costa Rican currency (the colón) and one of Panama's largest cities (Colón). At least 10 cities in the United States are named Columbus, and the District of Columbia was named after him, as was the Columbia River (ThoughtCo.)
Over five centuries after he made his bloody entrance to land already inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years, Columbus is not only memorialized with countries, cities, and currency named after him, but also with a federal holiday on the second Monday of every October (Columbus Day). At the end of his infamous first voyage in 1492, Columbus landed on an unknown Caribbean island after a three-month journey. Columbus’ arrival to the Americas marked the introduction of new diseases, violence, slavery, and forced Christian conversions upon the natives. Columbus and his henchmen immediately enslaved many indigenous people in the West Indies.
On the first day in a land that did not belong to him, he dictated that six of the natives should be apprehended, which he noted in his journal that these people would make sturdy slaves. Later, the martinet sent thousands of innocent Tainos (or Arawaks) from Hispaniola to Spain to be sold, many of whom died on the way. Fast forward six or so decades, and only a few hundred of the approximately quarter-million Tainos remained on their island (History Channel).
After that brief historical aside, it’s time to get back to the Thanksgiving story. The purpose of remembering the accounts of Columbus’ voyage is to add a crucial layer of transparency to the graphic nature of European-Native interactions. Their interactions were not cordial. They were not friendly. They were deadly. Similar to African descendants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the history of Native Americans has been misrepresented to deceive the masses into believing their story does not begin until European arrival.
To declare that a people or land did not exist until it was ‘discovered’ by white people is tantamount to visiting a town for the first time and suggesting that the 100-year old burger joint on Main Street was only recently revealed to the world when your eyes beheld the restaurant and taste buds experienced the food.
It’s dismissive of a rich cultural heritage that dates back at least 12,000 years ago, and according to certain Native traditions, forever. In the context of the Thanksgiving story, the arrival of the Mayflower is not the first time Natives interacted with Europeans. The Wampanoags already had a bloody century of contact with marauding Europeans. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, at least two and maybe more Wampanoags, when the Pilgrims arrived, spoke English, had already been to Europe and back and knew the very organizers of the Pilgrims’ venture.
An alleged lily-white sociable dinner shared between the two groups doesn’t exactly pass the smell test of history. It is true that the Wampanoag leader Massasoit Sachem or Ousamequin did reach out to the English at Plymouth and wanted an alliance with them. However, the chief did not want to meet the English because he desired a cuddly, loving relationship with them. It’s because his people had been decimated by an epidemic disease, and Ousamequin needed a stronger relationship with the English to better position his people for success in the future. It was more of a diplomatic obligation. The Thanksgiving myth doesn’t address the degradation of this relationship culminating in one of the worst colonial ‘Indian wars’ on record, King Philip’s War. The story also fails to acknowledge Wampanoag survival and resilience over the centuries, which is why blood still runs warm in their veins today.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History estimated that disease had already reduced the Native American population in New England by as much as 90% from 1616 to 1619, and indigenous people continued to die from what the colonists called "Indian fever."
In an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, Silverman says,
“From the very beginning, a sizable number of Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin's decision to reach out to [the English] and tried to undermine the alliance. Ousamequin puts down multiple plots to wipe out the colony and unseat him. Some Wampanoags say, ‘Let's make an alliance with the Narragansetts and get rid of these English. They've been raiding our coast for decades, enslaving our people, carrying them off to unknown fates and they can't be trusted.’ Some Wampanoags believed they caused epidemics and there were prophecies that this would be the end of the People.”
Clearly, all of the Wampanoags did not want to form any semblance of an alliance with the English in the first place, but it was a strategic political endeavor for others. Silverman says, “to the degree the Wampanoags dealt with the English, it was to adjust the power dynamics of Indian country” (Smithsonian Magazine).
Ousamequin proved to be a crucial ally to the English settlers in the years following the establishment of Plymouth. He organized an exclusive trade pact with them, and allied with them against the French and other local tribes like the Narragansetts and Massachusetts. Over time, this relationship dwindled as thousands of other European invaders spread throughout the land and began exerting dominance over the Wampanoag way of life.
By the time Ousamequin’s son Metacomet (known by the English as King Philip) inherited leadership, relations had completely eroded. King Phillip's War was sparked when a jury made up of colonists and Natives found three of Metacomet’s men guilty, and consequently executed them for the murder of Punkapoag interpreter and Christian convert John Sassamon. The Wampanoag men were hanged on June 8, 1675, and the days that ensued would be marred with death and despair (History Channel).
Wampanoag warriors responded by raiding the colonizers and the New England Confederation of Colonies declared war in 1675. The initially neutral Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was unavoidably dragged into the fighting, as were other nearby tribes like the Narragansetts.
English forces attacked the Narragansetts for sheltering the fleeing Wampanoag. Roughly 600 Narragansetts were killed, according to Atlas Obscura. Colonists relocated to better protected areas while the Wampanoag and allied tribes were forced to flee their villages. Eventually, the colonists allied with several tribes including the Mohegans and Pequots, which allowed them to strategically encroach upon Wampanoag sovereignty.
Upon Metacomet’s return to his home at Mount Hope, he was killed in the final battle. The son of the man who had benevolently sustained the otherwise desperate Plymouth Colony was then beheaded and dismembered, according to Seth Brown’s book It Happened in Rhode Island. His remaining allies were killed or sold into slavery in the West Indies.
The colonists impaled Metacomet’s head on a pole and displayed it in Plymouth for 25 years.
Moreover, the story does not begin and end there, but the first official Thanksgiving dinner seemingly took place earlier in 1637.
The Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed a feast to celebrate the safe return of colonial militiamen. The colonizers had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred between 500 to 700 Pequot Indians. Hundreds of Native American men, women and children were utterly demolished.
As Grace Donnelly wrote in Fortune,
“The celebration in 1621 did not mark a turning point and did not become an annual event. Relations between the Wampanoag and the settlers deteriorated, leading to the Pequot War. In 1637, in retaliation for the murder of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby village, killing as many as 500 men, women, and children. Following the massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
Hundreds of Pequot people were burned alive in their sleep at night. Members of the Mass Bay, Plymouth, Providence Plantation, and Mystic Seaport English colonies barricaded the exits in the village to ensure that the natives did not escape the flames.
This was just one of the earliest episodes in which colonizers brutally murdered natives, but inevitably, there would be many more massacres later in the colonial days.
As far as Thanksgiving being adopted as a national holiday, 18th century Pilgrims fought tooth-and-nail to retain their sociopolitical influence on the colony so they begin to establish self-aggrandizing origin stories that later caught on amongst the people. In 1769, a group of pilgrim descendants who lived in Plymouth felt like their cultural supremacy was dwindling away as New England became less relevant, and wanted to boost tourism. So, they started to slowly indoctrinate people with the idea that the Pilgrims were America’s dads (Smithsonian Magazine).
One newspaper even mentioned the dinner published by the religious leader Alexander Young included a footnote that said, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the great festival of New England” (Smithsonian Magazine). Slowly, the tale passed through the grapevine and eventually Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday during the Civil War in an attempt to band the disparate union together again. During Reconstruction, the Thanksgiving myth allowed people in New England to create this fabrication that bloodless colonialism in their region was the origin of the country. And, that they had nothing to do with the ‘Indian Wars’ and slavery. Americans could feel decent about their colonial past without having to confront their demons.
For the descendants of the Wampanoags and many Natives in the U.S., this day represents a “National Day of Mourning”.
The reality is that Thanksgiving is rooted in a crooked European delusion of Christian deliverance and Manifest Destiny. Imagine if your ancestors were ruthlessly massacred on their own land by strange men, and the descendants of those strange men celebrated the deaths of your ancestors on a nationally recognized holiday in the same land with blind ignorance and portly bellies.
The European invaders of America celebrated the bloody massacre of the original people of this land with gourmandizing hubris and cheeky smiles on their faces. They thanked their god for granting them victory over the so-called savages they just pillaged, raped, and murdered. It was a truly insidious day, and to remember this day with historical fallacies is to spit on the graves of all the slain natives, and deliberately disrespect their descendants who are very much alive today.
Don’t get it twisted, it’s still a free country, and we are sovereign beings, so do as you please. But, please understand why so many people are disgusted with this holiday and don’t get defensive when you are confronted about it. I just hope that you’ll be a bit more conscious of the spiritual heaviness involved with this day, and maybe, just maybe convert those reflective thoughts to radical empathy to bring about actionable change in local communities and governments.