Analysis: the truth about Thanksgiving


Blue Brasher, Reporter

Thanksgiving. What comes to mind when someone mentions this American holiday? Turkey? Family? Gratitude? What about the slaughter of thousands of Native Americans? Probably not. We have all been taught since grade school that the Pilgrims fled England from religious persecution, sailed to America and barely survived their first winter. With the help of Squanto and the friendly Wampanoag, who taught them how to exploit the local fish and game and plant corn and squash, the band of colonists succeeded in establishing a tenuous foothold at the edge of the North American wilderness. Young children’s conception of Native Americans often develops out of media portrayal and classroom role-playing of the first Thanksgiving. The conception of Native Americans gained from such early exposure is both inaccurate and potentially damaging to others. Most people do not know the following facts, which explains why many Native Americans today call Thanksgiving a “Day of Mourning.”

The beginning of the story is almost true. The people who comprised the Plymouth colony were a group of English Protestants who wanted to break away from the Church of England. Yet, they did not actually come to America to seek this religious freedom. They had already achieved that feat by moving to Holland. Their trip to America was completely commercial, due to money problems in Holland. As explained in a 1970 speech by Wamsutta James, a Wampanoag, one of the first things they did when arriving at Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Native American winter provisions as they were able to carry.

As the Puritans prepared for winter, they gathered anything they could find, including Wampanoag supplies. One day, Samoset, a leader of the Abenaki, and Squanto visited the settlers. Squanto was a Wampanoag who had experience with other settlers and knew English. Squanto, who was captured as a boy, enslaved, and sold to Spain,  helped settlers grow corn and use fish to fertilize their fields. After several meetings, a formal agreement was made between settlers and the native people and they joined together to protect each other from other from other tribes in March of 1621. Yet another deal between the settlers and Native Americans that was broken.

One day that fall, four settlers were sent to hunt for food for a harvest celebration. The Wampanoag heard gunshots and alerted their leader, Massasoit, who thought the English might be preparing for war. Massasoit visited the English with 90 of his men to see if the rumor was true. Soon they realized the English were only hunting for the harvest celebration. Massasoit sent some of his own men to hunt deer for the feast for three days. The English and native men, women, and children ate a meal consisting of deer, corn, shellfish and roasted meat together.

Believe it or not, the settlers didn’t have silver buckles on their shoes. But that is not the only misconception about this national holiday. Though the Thanksgiving feast arguably did happen, the peace between the Native Americans and settlers lasted for only a celebration. The Wampanoag people of today do not share in the popular reverence for the traditional New England Thanksgiving. For them, the holiday is a reminder of betrayal and bloodshed. Since 1970, many native people have gathered at the statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, Massachusetts each Thanksgiving Day to remember their ancestors and the strength of the Wampanoag.

For many years after, Native Americans continued to be exploited and killed. It is a hard truth to tell our children, for it is embarrassing and violent. Yet, if we want to start taking responsibility, we must correctly educate our children. Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday for gratitude and family, but we should also start using it as a day of remembrance for the Native Americans.

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