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Ana Maria Cornea / Gavel Media

The Indigenous History of Thanksgiving

The story of Thanksgiving is one that has been passed down for generations as a celebration of intercultural peace and American opportunity during a time to be grateful for the year’s blessings. The holiday was modeled after the harvest feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people in 1621, which sealed a treaty between the English colonists and the Native Americans that inhabited that land. Despite the American tradition of celebrating family, friendship, and harmony in honor of the first Thanksgiving, there remains an unseen history of bloodshed and massacre behind it. 

While this peace treaty was signed between Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, the American-Indian Wars ensued in 1622, only a year later. It commenced with the Jamestown Massacre and was soon followed by King Philip’s War just a few years later, which consequently led to over 200 years of massacres and disputes over Native lands. King Philip’s War took place between the Wampanoags and the European settlers, only four years after the treaty of the first Thanksgiving. The war resulted in thousands of Native Americans’ deaths, enslavement, and destruction in order to pave the way for more English settlements and a precedent of broken treaties and violence against Indigenous nations. 

Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to celebrate the Union victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War, as well as attempt to promote unity between Northerners and Southerners within the United States. Lincoln meant for this day of “thanksgiving and praise” to symbolize the American dream and intercultural unity, which is how it has come to be recognized over time. However, the original history between the European settlers and Indigenous people on which the holiday is based is being slowly forgotten, as the message of the holiday has been whitewashed and commodified to suit the economic and social needs of the nation. 

Today, many Native Americans do not even celebrate the American notion of Thanksgiving, as it has instead become a time of mourning. A commonly shared Native American view on the holiday is that it serves as a reminder of how a gift of generosity by the Wampanoag people was rewarded by land theft, extermination, and forced assimilation by European settlers. Rather than celebrate intercultural harmony, Thanksgiving Day is rather marked by traditional colonial American ideals, with most people completely ignoring the historical background behind the holiday. 

Since 1970, a Native American Day of Mourning has been observed during the time of Thanksgiving, in order to remember the disease, death, and oppression brought to the Indigenous peoples of North America by European settlers. For these communities, there is little to give thanks for regarding the painful history of their ancestors' oppression. This will be the 53rd year that the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has organized this memorial for the remembrance of the pain inflicted on their ancestors. This event calls upon members of the community to recall the true Indigenous history surrounding Thanksgiving and protest the racism and oppression that many Native Americans continue to face worldwide.

Despite this dark and oppressive history surrounding the American celebration of Thanksgiving, many families across the country continue to recognize the holiday as a time to appreciate the blessings in their lives and be thankful for one another. The creation of the national holiday in 1863 always meant for it to be celebrated as a form of American patriotism and national pride, capitalizing on a false memory of Pilgrims and American Indians. Rather than surround ourselves with false propaganda during this holiday, it is important to recognize the truth of the harmful consequences of colonialism on the Indigenous nations in America. This is an opportunity to not only remember the Indigenous history of Thanksgiving but also be appreciative of the many diverse cultures within America.