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Untangling the Harmful Myth of Thanksgiving


If you grew up in the United States, you likely were told that the story of Thanksgiving was an amicable celebration between the Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples. The two groups came together to have a delicious feast, with the Natives passing down their knowledge of the land and hunting, among other things, to make the Pilgrims’ transition in their new lives easier. But like other events in our country’s history, this story American children are all inundated with is a smokescreen to obscure the more difficult and tragic reality surrounding the United States’ treatment of the Natives.

The “first” Thanksgiving

To understand why the myth surrounding Thanksgiving is so harmful to Indigenous People, we must first acknowledge its origins. Though Thanksgiving wasn’t an official holiday until 1863, it was recognized and celebrated in various ways after the Pilgrims colonized the land that we now recognize as Plymouth in 1621. The first official record of a Thanksgiving celebration was years later in 1637 after the Pequot Massacre, in which 700 members of the Pequot tribe were ruthlessly murdered at the hands of the Pilgrims. To celebrate the massacre, Governor John Winthrop declared “a day of Thanksgiving.” 

According to James Baker, author of “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday,” the ideology in America began to change in the late 1800s and early 1900s as more European immigrants began to arrive. It was during this time that the concept of “America” as we know it today was formed, as well as the myth of Thanksgiving. Not only was this a way to boost nationalism across the country, but the newly arrived immigrants could be effectively indoctrinated as proud “Americans.” 

Thus, American children were taught that the Pilgrims arrived and were greeted warmly by the Natives, who welcomed them to the New World and willingly allowed them to live on the land and pass their knowledge and resources on to them. There was no mention of the violence and tragedy the many groups of Indigenous Peoples faced at the hands of the colonizers, and how they were forced off the land they had lived on for centuries. Sadly, this myth continues to be perpetuated today. 

Thanksgiving today

There are those for whom Thanksgiving is seen as a time to share with close family and friends, while for others it is a painful reminder at the violence endured by Indigenous Peoples across the country. Much like we have done, and continue to do, with the observance of Columbus Day, we must have an honest conversation and recognize the pain before we can move forward. One way to do that is to turn your attention to alternative events and celebrations to Thanksgiving, as well as taking actions, that directly support and empower Indigenous Peoples. Here are a few ways you can do that. 

Engage in an alternative celebration to Thanksgiving 

Time with your loved ones can be particularly hard to come by, especially in today’s world. There’s nothing wrong with gathering with your friends and family to catch up and enjoy a delicious dinner, but you don’t need to do that in the name of Thanksgiving. Alternatively, National Day of Listening, which takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving, encourages us all to get together with those we love most and share, record, and preserve the stories of our lives, while also listening to the stories of those who may be in marginalized groups to better understand one another. 

If you happen to live in the San Francisco area, you can recognize Unthanksgiving Day, which takes place on Alcatraz Island on the fourth Thursday in November. Also known as the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise, it was started in 1969 to honor and promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples. There’s also National Day of Mourning, which is an annual protest held on Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Protestors acknowledge the plight of Indigenous Peoples across the country, as well as the violent origins of Thanksgiving. 

Support Native American organizations and businesses 

Money talks, to put it simply, and can go a long way to empowering Indigenous Peoples. Here are a few organizations and businesses to support if you can: 

  • American Indian College FundHelps provide scholarships to allow American Indian students to get, and stay, in school, as well as provide them with the tools they need to graduate and go on to enjoy successful careers. 
  • Beyond Buckskin BoutiqueThis online store has an extensive inventory, from apparel to blankets and décor and more! 
  • B.YellowtailThis online boutique specializes in selling clothing, accessories, and beauty products. 
  • Native American Rights FundNARF has been working towards protecting the rights of Native Americans for 50 years. They consult policymakers, ensuring that American Indian tribes and organizations are represented fairly and accurately.
  • National Indigenous Women’s Resource CenterEach donation made to NIWRC assists them with ending violence against Native women, as well as restoring the sovereignty for tribes. You can even make sure that your donation goes towards a specific component of the work they do. 

Take the time to learn more about Indigenous communities and history 

Whether it’s in the form of a book or podcast, there are plenty of resources out there to learn about the different tribes, their history, as well as the land we took from them. Here are some options: 

  • American Indians in Children’s LiteratureKnowledge is ongoing, and this list of books covers a wide variety of topics for people of all ages to expand you and your loved ones’ knowledge surrounding Indigenous Peoples. 
  • Native LandThe land we’re living on has a long, storied history that does not begin with the Pilgrims arriving in 1621. Learn more about that history by plugging in your address to this site. You’ll learn things like the languages spoken in the respective territories, territory boundaries, as well as treaties that affected the land. 
  • This LandCherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle hosts this award-winning podcast that focuses on how two crimes committed against the Cherokee tribe eventually led to a landmark ruling in the McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court Case last year. 
  • VisionMakerDive into this list of educational films that cover the challenges currently facing Native communities across the country.  
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