Although many Potawatomi and others across the United States celebrate Thanksgiving, the factual history behind the holiday is something to be less than thankful for. While communing with loved ones and showing appreciation for the bounties and gifts provided is one positive aspect of the national holiday, teaching a false narrative of its beginnings perpetuates colonialism and ignores more than 400 years of atrocities committed against Native Americans and First Nations’ people.
“It just disregards (the centuries of brutality) against Native Americans and chooses to take this one tiny snapshot, and in the world of social media, it puts all the pretty filters on it so that it doesn’t look the way it truly did,” said Dr. Kelli Mosteller, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center director.
According to an article published in The New York Times by Maya Salam in 2017, “Thanksgiving facts and Thanksgiving myths have blended together for years like so much gravy and mashed potatoes, and separating them is just as complicated.”
The formation of Thanksgiving as an official, United States’ holiday, did not begin until November 1863 during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln officially established the holiday as a way to improve relations between northern and southern states as well as the U.S. and tribal nations. Just a year prior, a mass execution took place of Dakota tribal members. Corrupt federal agents kept the Dakota-Sioux from receiving food and provisions. Finally at the brink of death from starvation, members of the tribe fought back, resulting in the Dakota War of 1862. In the end, President Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men to die from hanging, and he felt that Thanksgiving offered an opportunity to bridge the hard feelings amongst Natives and the federal government.
“It was propaganda,” Dr. Mosteller explained. “It was to try and build this event so that you could have a deeper narrative about community building and coming together in shared brotherhood and unity.”
While the Thanksgiving celebrated today may not have complete, factual roots, Native Americans, Europeans and other cultures across the world have held festivals and special meals in gratitude for bountiful harvests and to reflect on the past year. Many across Indian Country continue these traditions by simply sharing a meal with friends and loved ones without referencing it as a true “Thanksgiving.”
“A lot of people don’t acknowledge it as Thanksgiving. They say, ‘I’m going to get together with family, and it’s going to be about sharing the meal, but we’re not going to acknowledge the Mayflower and the pilgrims because it’s holding up this false moment of friendship and completely disregards the genocide and the mass land theft and the brutality that all Native peoples experience,’” Dr. Mosteller said.
Plymouth and pilgrims
Textbooks often indicate the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, because the harsh winter was approaching or a storm sent them off course from their original Virginia destination.
“Winter’s onset cannot have been the reason, however, for the weather would be much milder in Virginia than Massachusetts. Moreover, the Pilgrims spent six full weeks — until December 26 — scouting around Cape Cod looking for the best spot,” Loewen wrote in Lies My Teacher Told Me.
The Dutch possibly bribed the Mayflower’s captain to sail north, a good distance from New Amsterdam in present-day New York. Some historians believe their arrival in Cape Cod was purposeful.
“Historian George Willison has argued that the Pilgrim leaders, wanting to be far from Anglican control, never planned to settle in Virginia,” Loewen continued. “They had debated the relative merits of Guiana, in South America, versus the Massachusetts coast, and, according to Willison, they intended a hijacking. Certainly the Pilgrims already knew quite a bit about what Massachusetts could offer them, from the fine fishing along Cape Cod to that ‘wonderful plague,’ which offered an unusual opportunity for English settlement.”
Prior to European arrival, America’s Indigenous did not experience illnesses attributed to livestock, overcrowding or poor hygiene.
“Residents of northern Europe and England rarely bathed, believing it unhealthy, and rarely removed all of their clothing at one time, believing it immodest,” Loewen wrote in Lies My Teacher Told Me.
“The Pilgrims smelled bad to the Indians. Squanto ‘tried, without success, to teach them to bathe,’ according to Feenie Ziner, his biographer.”
In fact, three years before the pilgrims landed, English and French fisherman transmitted diseases to tribes as they came ashore to find fresh water, firewood and capture Native Americans for slave trade.
“Within three years the plague wiped out between 90 to 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. Native societies were devastated. Only ‘the twentieth person is scarce left alive,’ wrote Robert Cushman, an English eyewitness, recording a death rate unknown in all previous human experience,” Loewen wrote.
Those who did survive left their communities to join others, bringing the illnesses along with them. This caused many Native Americans to perish, even though they had not encountered Europeans. Once the pilgrims did arrive in 1620, the epidemics across Indian Country were far from over.
Throughout history, religion has served as a means of justification, and for the English Separatists, it was no different. They believed the wide-spread death and devastation of Native Americans due to disease was divine provenience and that God willed them to take over the land.
“By the time the Native populations of New England had replenished themselves to some degree, it was too late to expel the intruders. … If colonists had not been able to occupy lands already cleared by Indian farmers who had vanished, colonization would have proceeded much more slowly. If Indian culture had not been devastated by the physical and psychological assaults it had suffered, colonization might not have proceeded at all,” Loewen wrote.
Squanto (Tisquantum) and the Wampanoag
The story of Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, is much less innocent than the narrative that he assisted the pilgrims with teaching them how to grow crops and take advantage of North America’s bounties.
Six years before the Mayflower arrived in present-day Massachusetts, a slave-trader captured Squanto — Tisquantum — and a group of Native Americans. With help from the Catholic Church, Tisquantum escaped and found his way to England where he learned English. He eventually returned to North America in 1619.
While Tisquantum was overseas, New England’s Indigenous experienced a monumental death rate, with some communities losing nearly every tribal member to the decimating effects of European diseases.
Upon returning to North American and his village of Patuset, Tisquantum found only piles of bones of his fellow tribesmen killed by the plagues. He realized he was the sole survivor of his village. The illness spread so quickly that many local tribes never had time to bury their dead.
Where Tisquantum’s village once thrived, the pilgrims established Plymouth Plantation.
During this time, the Wampanoag lost up to 75 percent of its people, while a nearby enemy tribe, the Narragansett, did not. Wampanoag leader Massasoit saw the pilgrims as possible allies against the Narragansett. Due to his English-speaking abilities, Massasoit used Tisquantum as a translator, though the Wampanoag leader did not trust his fellow tribal member and held him as a prisoner.
Rather than continue a life of servitude to Massasoit, Tisquantum established himself as a key resource to the pilgrims, teaching them how to survive.
The Wampanaog and the pilgrims made a treaty that established an understanding that the tribe would look out for the pilgrims against their enemies and vice-versa.
“Squanto’s travels acquainted him with more of the world than any Pilgrim encountered. He had crossed the Atlantic perhaps six times, twice as an English captive, and had lived in Maine, Newfoundland, Spain, and England, as well as Massachusetts. All this brings us to Thanksgiving,” Loewen wrote in Lies My Teacher Told Me.
The pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest in 1621 by shooting their guns into the air, which caused Massasoit to bring together warriors and prepare for battle. Instead of fighting, the Wampanoag and pilgrims worked together to prepare a feast.
In an article published by Indian Country Today in 2011, Thanksgiving Day is a time of grief for Native Americans. Many Natives continue to gather at Cole’s Hill near Plymouth Rock and remember the losses experienced for the past 400-plus years through the National Day of Mourning. The event began in 1970 when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wamsutta (Frank) James to address the public on behalf of the Wampanoag people. However, once organizers learned the subjects of his speech, which included highlighting the death and broken promises at the hand of settlers, colonial powers and the United States, James was no longer invited. This prompted the formation of the National Day of Mourning.
James wrote, “This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.”
Ways to combat the false narrative
For those in education, Dr. Mosteller encourages seeking alternative curriculum and guest speakers from Native communities that can shine an appropriate light on the holiday’s history.
“The Chickasaw Nation, for example, has a curriculum specialist who develops curricula to make available to school districts, not just on Thanksgiving, but on a whole list of issues where the Native narrative has been either turned on its head to make something that it wasn’t or we’ve just been erased from the narrative altogether,” she said.
While many will continue getting together with friends and loved ones to celebrate and recognize the gifts provided since the year before, incorporating traditional ingredients and recipes as well as teaching the factual history can go a long way in healing and restoring the Native narrative within the American culture. For ideas on how to incorporate traditions this year, check out these recipes.