The Truth About Thanksgiving

This article was originally published on November 28, 2020.

The month of November is Native American Heritage Month. In many schools, we are failing to learn and honor Native American history and instead focusing on history from the viewpoint of European explorers and colonizers. The myth of Thanksgiving is not accurate or honoring Native American heritage and instead recognizing the hardships of the pilgrims.

Claire Bugos writes in the Smithsonian Magazine says, “The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear.” (Bugos, “The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue”).

In the myth of Thanksgiving, we call the colonists ‘pilgrims’, which is a Christian title that praises the colonists. We call Native Americans ‘Indians’, which was first created by the colonists when they arrived in America thinking they were in India, therefore assuming the Indigenous people were Indians. These titles have continued to be used mainly by caucasian Americans, who are using the labels to applaud the colonists and put down Indigenous people.

The myth of Thanksgiving was mainly created to cover up the colonists’ many years of killing and enslaving of Native Americans. The myth of Thanksgiving states is that the colonists first encountered Native Americans in September of 1620, after the departure of the Mayflower. Eryn Dion from the US Today Network writes, “But starting there ignores years of European contact with the Native people of New England, and paints the Wampanoag and their neighbors in the broad stroke of simplicity, ignoring the complex regional relationships and politicking at play” (Dion, “After a summer of racial reckoning, is America ready to learn the truth about Thanksgiving?”). The history between the colonists and Native Americans actually goes back to 1524, which is the first known contact between Native Americans and colonists.

The myth of Thanksgiving makes Native Americans sound simple, welcoming, and grateful for the colonists. What’s more, the myth also erases the history between the Native Americans and the colonists after the First Thanksgiving. Instead, the Native Americans supposedly gave up their land to the colonists and disappeared. Indigenous people had been facing multiple generations of death, war, and enslavement well before the First Thanksgiving. The First Thanksgiving was based on a truce between the Wampanoag tribe and Colonists. The Wampanoag tribe leader decided to try making peace with the colonists, hoping to end the generations of hardship and death.

Overall, the Thanksgiving myth allows Americans to create this idea of bloodless colonization, having nothing to do with slavery and discrimination. Americans can feel good about their colonial past, without having to talk about or think about the pain, death, erasure, and re-education of Native Americans. The Thanksgiving myth is like a big slap to the face for Native Americans. Instead of celebrating their heritage, we learn about the biases of their culture and the “Pilgrims.” The Thanksgiving myth continues to be told and taught to students across the country, and will continue to if Americans don’t accept the truth. This myth has caused lots of damage to Indigenous people and how they feel about this country, as well as made an environment of unwelcomeness to others. It makes Americans a lot less reflective of the privileges they get to have and where those privileges come from. If we continue to ignore our past, how are we supposed to learn from mistakes and grow as a country?

Below is a list of books by Indigenous authors that I have enjoyed:

Picture books:

  • Dragonfly Kites, Tomson Highway
  • The Girl And The Wolf, Katherena Vermette
  • Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, Kevin Noble Maillard
  • We Are Water Protectors, Carole Lindstrom
  • Birdsong, Julie Flett

Middle-Grade books:

  • Race to The Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • The Barren Grounds, David Robertson
  • I Can Make This Promise, Christine Day
  • Code Talker, Joseph Bruchac
  • Land of The Cranes, Aida Salazar
  • Brothers Keeper, Julie Lee
  • An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz