Thanksgiving is a time for expressing gratitude for our friends, our families, for our follies and for our successes and — most importantly — for pecan pie. But, as parents, there is often a more troubling part of Thanksgiving: How do we talk to our children and younger people about the truth of Thanksgiving? And, how do we talk about the troubling and enduring effects of that first meal celebrating the harvest? November is also Native American Heritage Month and the perfect time to talk to your kids about the real story behind Thanksgiving.
A professor once said that understanding Indigenous history and changing it for good in the future means that everyone involved must be unsettled. Knowing how to deal with the unsettled feeling makes the difference. We can tell our children how the finally retired mascot of Washington D.C.'s, NFL team is a legacy of that first feast. We talk to our children about how the nearly 70 percent of all Native Americans living in poverty on reservations is an effect of that first meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoags — the Native people who helped the Pilgrims. We can arm our children with truth and be grateful knowing we have helped set the world a little bit right.
We can take the unsettling feelings and explain to our children, friends and parents that we don’t need Pilgrim and Indian decorations on our tables. We can tell our children that Native nations continue to thrive and are resilient.
Most of us have been taught that the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 and had a hard winter. We have been told that the Wampanoag came to their aid, taught them to plant and then celebrated a friendship with a feast, which came to be known as the first Thanksgiving. Some people today might dress their children in Pilgrim hats and make paper feathers and headbands. We tend to focus on how the Pilgrims and Indians ate together in friendship and then we proceed to enjoy our pie and turkey. And then we watch football.
Recounting or not correcting this myth effectively says Native American history and perspective does not matter. But if we take a look at the myth, we can see it is just simply history — neither Native American nor Pilgrim.
There are several myths we can correct while preparing the turkey with our mother or father, or while helping our children set the Thanksgiving table:
- First, and sadly, turkey, according to historians, was not likely served. Other fowl, like geese or duck most likely was served, along with five deer provided by the Wampanoags. Additionally, there were no sweet potatoes. These were not grown. But pumpkins, succotash and Indian corn were served.
- Second, the Wampanoags were most likely not invited and simply crashed the harvest feast. The Pilgrims were celebrating their harvest and shooting guns and canons. The Wampanoags most likely responded by sending 90 warriors in response to the gunfire. What they came upon was a feast. The Pilgrims were fearful, as the Wampanoags outnumbered the Pilgrims two to one.
- Third, Squanto was not as appreciated by the Pilgrims as we tend to think. Squanto was kidnapped as a boy and sold into slavery in Spain. He learned English so he could get home. Upon his return home, he found his entire village had been killed in battle or by disease brought by the colonists.
- Fourth, the feast called Thanksgiving did not happen until 1637, 16 years after that initial harvest feast. The colonists launched an attack on the Pequot Nation after they found a murdered white man in 1636. This bloody massacre killed many and decimated the Pequot Nation. One day after the massacre, the then Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, William B. Newell, wrote that from that day forth it shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots. He wrote “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
Thanksgiving, as we have come to know it, originated from a massacre.
There are more myths we unknowingly reproduce, but these are the unsettling truths. Acknowledging the history of the holiday that we cherish is important, as it acknowledges the existence of Native people.
Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. We can be grateful for the correct history. We can take the unsettling feelings and explain to our children, friends and parents that we don’t need Pilgrim and Indian decorations on our tables. We can tell our children that Native nations continue to thrive and are resilient. We can tell our children that we celebrate Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks for our bounty and not to commemorate the first Thanksgiving.
As a citizen of the Diné Nation, I look forward to spending time with family, eating amazing (often decadent) food and having a few days off during the Thanksgiving holiday. This time of year is frustrating; it says to millions of Indigenous people and me that our history does not matter, that we are invisible and that we no longer exist.
But we can do something; we can start in our homes, around our Thanksgiving dinner table and speak truth to our family. We can be grateful that by doing so, we make the world a little right.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated in November 2020.