This holiday represents a bloody history and present of genocide of the people who were living in North America before European colonizers arrived. What is often referred to as the “first Thanksgiving” is merely one of the first harvest celebrations that settlers had on what would become U.S. soil. The settlers didn’t reach out to invite the Wampanoag people to feast with them; they invited them only after they showed up in response to hearing gunshots, a celebratory act of the Europeans over the harvest. There wasn’t enough food, so some Wampanoag warriors went out to bring back deer (Tirado, 2011). What I and many other students learned in elementary school is that this was a friendly meal shared between different groups of people.
History surrounding the “first Thanksgiving” and what Thanksgiving means to the Wampanoag
When the Mayflower arrived, a majority of the Wampanoag tribe had recently been wiped out due to plague brought by the Europeans. Tisquantum, a Wampanoag who had been enslaved while his people were dying of the plague, negotiated release and returned to his village (present-day Plymouth) just before the Mayflower arrived (Johnson, 2017). The Wampanoag still living nearby saw that the Mayflower carried women and children, and therefore must be coming in peace. The Europeans arrived in winter without sufficient food. Tisquantum, who could speak English from his enslavement, taught survival skills to the settlers. He organized a meeting with Massasoit, a Wampanoag leader, and John Carver, the European’s governor to negotiate a peace treaty (National Museum of the American Indian).
After the “first Thanksgiving”, Massasoit continued to honor the peace treaty despite aggressive actions toward the Wampanoag by the European colonists. However, over four decades after the colonists arrived and over a decade after Massasoit’s death, the Wampanoag were defeated in war, and only 400 Wampanoag people survived. The population has increased since then to about 2750 (Wikipedia, 2017).
Today, people from indigenous tribes across the U.S. use the national holiday of Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for the beginning of the ongoing genocide of their people (Tirado, 2011).
History surrounding the U.S. holiday and what Thanksgiving means to many non-indigenous people
Two centuries after the colonists taught by Tisquantum celebrated their first harvest across the Atlantic, Sarah Josepha Hale began writing letters to politicians and publications promoting the importance of a day for families to feast together and express gratitude toward God (History.com, 2009). As President Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday during the civil war, it was a harvest celebration devoted to God, the continual provider of food even in war-torn times (Baker, 2007).
Somehow a story of pilgrims and Wampanoag people feasting peacefully together emerged in schools a few decades (Plimoth Plantation, 2017). Plimoth Plantation claims that schools adopted this story in order to teach values of “freedom and how to be good citizens.”
Dissecting Thanksgiving in school
How does the Thanksgiving story teach values? The colonists from Europe exercised freedom to find a new land where they were free from religious persecution. To exercise this freedom, Sarah Josepha Hale, Abraham Lincoln, and others recognized a day to express gratitude toward their God. While this might have seemed like a freedom to them, naming a holiday for a specific God is hardly freeing to people of all religious affiliations. Referring to a capitalized God is referring to a specific god that might not hold any meaning to some people. Worse, this God holds a negative connotation to many non-Christians, who are erased by the assumption that everyone should dedicate this day to thanking God for the gifts of nature.
It is especially harmful that in order to encourage thankfulness, a story is told of an event that occurred near the beginning of the genocide of peoples who practice daily gratitude. It is cruel and insensitive that a holiday centers on gratitude toward a Christian god, who is believed to love all people, yet has been the excuse for persecution throughout the continent on which the holiday is celebrated.
The other value Plimoth Plantation refers to is being good citizens. Where in the story of the “first Thanksgiving” are the good citizens? The Wampanoag were invited to feast with the colonists, but only after they stumbled on the feast. Do we want to teach students to raise only enough food for themselves? Do we want to teach students to exclude others until guilt stares them in the face? Likely not. Plimoth Plantation must, then, be referring to the generosity of the Wampanoag.
The Wampanoag brought additional food to the harvest celebration, since there wasn’t enough for everyone. This is not overly generous, though it does reduce stress, much like an organized potluck. The overly generous person in the story is Tisquantum, whose generosity extends beyond teaching survival skills to the colonists; he negotiated peace between the Wampanoag and the European settlers, and encouraged other tribes to trade with colonists as well. While this act might seem generous to the Eurocentric mind, Tisquantum’s generosity may have enabled or hastened the speed of genocide of peoples native to the continent. Yes, Tisquantum was generous. But we can only speculate on his motives. After having been enslaved, was help offered out of pure generosity or perceived self-preservation? Schools should teach self-preservation for what it is; sometimes people do things they don’t want to do in order to survive.
Actual Thanksgiving story lessons
Sharing skills is a great way to help others become self-sufficient.
Sometimes helping others goes without thanks.
Sometimes people do things they don’t want to do in order to survive.
Peace is often not from actual shared understanding and respect but for tactical advantage.
White people have a history of using and abusing people who are not white.*
White people are fairly unpracticed in gratitude.
*White people are not the only people to exercise racism, and white people can also abuse white people.
Wikipedia. (2017, 11 16). Wampanoag. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampanoag
Baker, P. M. (2007). The Godmother of Thanksgiving: the Story of Sarah Josepha Hale. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Pilgrim Society: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Godmother_of_Thanksgiving.pdf
History.com. (2009). History of Thanksgiving. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving
Johnson, C. (2017). Tisquantum (“Squanto”). Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from
NMAI. (n.d.). Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from National Museum of the American Indian: http://nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/NMAI_Harvest_Study_Guide.pdf
Plimoth Plantation. (2017). Thanksgiving History. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Plimoth Plantation: https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/thanksgiving/thanksgiving-history
Tirado, M. (2011, 11 23). The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Indian Country Day: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/the-wampanoag-side-of-the-first-thanksgiving-story/