Thanksgiving: What Really Happened?

Written by: Lily

Edited by: Mariah

Visual by: Tatiana

The traditional story of the American holiday Thanksgiving begins in 1620 when the pilgrims landed in “the new world”-more specifically what is now known as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Fresh off the Mayflower, they were said to have celebrated the harvest season by enjoying a large feast with the Native Americans who welcomed them onto their land. But the real story is much darker and more complex. 

When the first Thanksgiving took place is still highly debated, but according to many historians, the most likely point in time is 1666, when a pandemic spread through the Wampanoag villages, killing thousands. “We weren’t used to diseases here,” said Hazel Currence, an elder in the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, “our systems were not used to the illnesses that came with the Europeans and the Pilgrims.” This, in addition to the theft of Native food, seed stores, and funerary offerings from dug up graves, encouraged the Wampanoag leader to make peace between his people and the Europeans — who had been raiding Native villages and enslaving their people for almost a century at that point — to prevent even more death. 

After developing an alliance with the Wampanoag and receiving their help, the Pilgrims decided to hold a feast in honor of the harvest season; this feast has now become the center of the Thanksgiving tradition and myth. However, contrary to popular belief, the Wampanoag were not invited, but actually showed up later. A group of at least a hundred Wampanoag people and their leader Massasoit came to the feast, not because they wanted to celebrate, but rather to remind the pilgrims that they controlled the land and therefore had the upper hand. This is where the myth of the first Thanksgiving, the two groups sitting down together to feast and celebrate peace, ends. The real story continues in a brutal pattern of bloodshed and death as most of the Indigenous population was either slaughtered by colonizers or enslaved. To this day the Native peoples still haven’t recovered. 

Despite all the Indigenous peoples did to help the pilgrims survive, such as sharing food, resources, wisdom, and protection, they have been underappreciated in traditional accounts of Thanksgiving history. In fact, the original idea of the holiday did not even involve the pilgrims at all; in 1863 the first national Thanksgiving Day was declared by President Abraham Lincoln to keep the country from completely falling apart during the Civil War. But the American people decided to cover up the fact that their country was built off the blood of Native people, by manufacturing a believable story to cover it up. In other words, creating a cover-up story about the 102 “humble” and “kind” pilgrims who built a life of religious freedom in the new world and made peace with the Native people. Not only does this disregard the atrocities that that really happened, but it also presents the Wampanoag and their neighboring tribes in insulting simplicity, ignoring the complexities of the already existing political relationships between them and the Europeans and their exploitation by the pilgrims.

The Bearcats who celebrate this holiday have a duty to spread the true story of Thanksgiving and do as much as they can to support the Native American community in order to help them achieve the revitalization of traditional culture, protection of their rights, and all in all to fight back the discrimination they have suffered for centuries. Try incorporating some indigenous dishes in your spread such as Wild rice pilaf, Hasselback squash, and slow-cooked buffalo; buy your ingredients from businesses run by Native Americans; watch the national mourning day live stream and donate to organizations that support the indigenous community. But the most important thing we can all do as allies is to listen to what they have to say and hear their stories. It is rightfully their land, and the least we can do is support them in the revitalization of Native American culture. 

Here are some resources that have helped me become a better ally:

Indigenous American activists to follow:

Jordan Marie Daniel  

Jordan Marie Daniel often runs marathons with a red hand, painted across their mouth to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; it represents the silenced voices of their communities.

Adrienne Keene

Her blog: 

Adrienne Keene manages the blog linked above, which has informative explanations behind why and how popular movie studios, fashion chains, and designers have been able to tarnish the image of Indigenous people through inauthentic representations.

Representative Sharice Davids

Representative Sharice Davids is truly amazing: she’s the first openly LGBTQIA+ member of Congress for Kansas, and one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.