The Complicated History of Thanksgiving

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It is common knowledge that the first “Thanksgiving” was a harvest celebration meal shared by English pilgrim settlers and indigenous people native to modern Massachusetts. However, this story has little historical backing. There is no evidence that indigenous people were present at the settlers’ first harvest feast, and the nature of the meal they may have shared is not well understood.

Today, many of our conceptions of the pilgrims and Plymouth, their first settlement, come from a benign story aimed at young children. We only learn that the pilgrims were a gentle people seeking religious freedom in the new world who treated the natives there with kindness. Nothing is said of the genocide they executed and the precedent they set for centuries of suffering. 

Many American cultural institutions solidify our mistaken historical narrative around Thanksgiving. For example, the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special, which serves as an introduction to Thanksgiving for many young children, tells nothing of the story of indigenous people in the United States, and “We Gather Together,” a hymn sung in many communities before Thanksgiving celebrations, states that “the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing” without mentioning the vicious oppression of the native Pequot people.

Even if there had been an amicable celebration between the settlers and natives, the peacefulness did not last long. In 1637, the pilgrims emerged victorious from the Pequot War, in which they decimated local tribes and struck out a permanent claim to the land of coastal Massachusetts.

The treatment of the Pequot people, the Cherokee during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and many tribes during the period of western expansion are stains on the history of the United States. Thus, we cannot gloss over the blood on the nation’s hands and present a peaceful celebration as our primary understanding of the historical relationship between settlers and native people.

This is not to bash Thanksgiving or discourage its celebration; Thanksgiving has long been a holiday based around gratitude, family, community tradition, and shared cultural values. However, we should also use this time of reflection to consider our nation’s tainted history and acknowledge the suffering caused by the settlers who celebrated the first Thanksgiving. 

There are multiple ways non-indigenous people can re-center the narrative at their Thanksgiving celebrations. One quick but powerful way to recognize the true history of Thanksgiving is a land acknowledgement. To perform a land acknowledgment, participate in a deliberate spoken admission and acceptance that we live on stolen land. The morning of Thanksgiving can also be taken as a day of mourning. In a day of mourning, we acknowledge and condemn the suffering that non-native people have inflicted on Native Americans before we celebrate our American traditional meal in the afternoon.

If you live in the Philadelphia area, you live on land that belonged to the Lenni Lenape people. If you plan on participating in a land acknowledgement, state explicitly that we are living on Lenape land; it is important to recognize that there were many Native American tribes before colonization, and each had their own distinct cultural history.