Can You Handle the Truth About Thanksgiving?

Featured image: “A Statue of Massasoit” by Merelymel13 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Audio: recorded with Voice Recorder by quality apps, edited in Audacity.

4 for Now

I think (hope) that most of us colonizers in the United States know that the Thanksgiving story we were taught in school is a load of crap. But unless you’ve taken special courses, went looking for it on the internet, or have Indigenous friends who have graciously shared, you probably never heard the truth.

When the Pilgrims landed at what we now call Plymouth, Massachusetts, they were unprepared for the winter ahead. The Pokanoket people, under the leadership of their Massasoit, Osamequin, opted to aid the strangers. He did this despite the established history of white folks kidnapping native folks and selling them into slavery overseas.

The famous “first thanksgiving”? Just a meal shared by Pilgrims and Natives. It wasn’t a celebration. It wasn’t a historic moment. It wasn’t even the first interaction between Indigenous folks and Englishmen. (Remember, the first colony established in the “new world” was in Virginia in 1607, 14 years earlier.)

White folks repaid the Natives for their kindness by stealing their food, land, and lives. To the Pokanoket, land meant survival. It meant they could hunt and farm. To the Pilgrims, land was a status symbol. They took as much as they could and built fences or walls around it.

Pilgrims also took the Pokanokets’ knowledge and skills, without paying them anything in return. And not only did they spread diseases the Natives had no immunity for, but they also willfully murdered Pokanoket men and women, children and elders. Those that survived had to leave of their own accord, divest themselves of their Native identities, or be relocated to prison camps we colloquially refer to as “reservations.”

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, after the Civil War, hoping to unite a divided nation. I could argue that uniting the nation was perhaps not the best choice, but coming together at the expense of Native Americans was definitely the wrong choice.

A Brief Aside

Not to stray too far off topic here, but this brings us back to false dichotomies and how we paint situations as “us versus them.” Not only is it wrong when we arbitrarily divide everyone up into two opposing categories, but it also ignores the fact that it doesn’t have to be anyone versus anyone. We can choose to treat one another with love and kindness. We can choose to support each other rather than compete with each other.

(I want to stress here, it’s mostly white people I’m talking to, as a lot of other folks have figured this out already.) We can choose not to hate and oppress and enslave and murder other people. Whatever the reasons: fear, greed, ignorance … We can choose to do better.

Check out the bonus sources below to get ideas on how to start.

And keep in mind, especially if you interact with any Indigenous folks: “Thanksgiving,” for some of them, is a Day of Mourning, to recognize the history of white peoples’ violence against them and to celebrate their resilience. Respect whatever they may be feeling.


4 for Later

  1. A clever video illustrating an interview with National Museum of the American Indian curator Paul Chaat Smith (4:38-minute video)
  2. Wamsutta James (aka Frank B. James) was supposed to give a speech at the Thanksgiving day celebration in Plymouth, MA in 1970. The organizers had asked to see his speech in advance though, and upon reading it, refused to let him give it. Read that speech here. (12-minute read)
  3. We Still Live Here: Black Indians of Wampanoag and African Heritage (5:25-minute video)
  4. Here’s How You Can Support the Indigenous American Community This Thanksgiving by Kyler Alvoid (18 minutes if you read all the way through, but it’s a collection of links to businesses to support, ways to support local Indigenous communities, and where to learn more).

Bonus Resource


This week, I urge you to listen rather than speak. Check out the sources I’ve provided above to learn more. Follow some of the organizations I mentioned in Can We Stop Celebrating Bad People Yet? and seek out Indigenous people (on your social media of choice and AFK) to ensure you have more Native voices in your circle.

This is a dark time in history that we’ve extended because white folks are unwilling to face it. WE must acknowledge what we’ve done and choose a different path if we ever hope to make up for the wrongs we’ve done and avoid repeating those actions.