Thanksgiving is an objectively bad holiday. The food is bland, dinner is too early, the parade ends before a good portion of the country wakes up and people are forced to encounter family members they have been trying to avoid. The only good part about it is the opportunity to give thanks for all that matters and recall the origin story of this nation. Or rather, a small part of it.
Everyone who went through an American elementary school knows the story — pilgrims seeking freedom from religious persecution were saved from starvation by the local Native Americans and they ate a feast together to celebrate not dying. What is omitted from this tale is the legacy of pain and suffering that Native people have gone through because of the colonization of America.
The original concept of Thanksgiving Day did not spring from a desire to celebrate one of the few times during which the colonists and the Native Americans were not actively at war. Instead, it was a decades-old idea that was made official by Abraham Lincoln and was strongly pushed by the Quakers.
The narrative surrounding the history of Thanksgiving is riddled with half-truths and omissions of important context. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting a day to memorialize the hardships that the settlers went through and be grateful for all that life has provided, there are no national holidays to commemorate the losses experienced by the Native Americans as a direct result of European colonialism.
The first major misconception about Thanksgiving is that it was a feast of celebration that united both the Puritans and the Native Americans. In reality, the local Wampanoag tribe were not invited. Instead, they were drawn to the settlement by the sound of gunfire and then learned that a celebration was happening, but decided to camp nearby for a few days to make sure there was no danger. They also signed a treaty with the Puritans in the hopes of maintaining peace between the two communities.
In the years that followed, however, relations between the Puritans and the neighboring Native communities soured. It took only a generation for the peace to end, leading to a violent conflict with the nearby Pequot people, who were massacred by the settlers, wiping out a significant part of their population. The governor of Massachusetts later declared that every following Thanksgiving “was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
The Thanksgiving that is presently celebrated isn’t even the original Thanksgiving. That honor belongs to Jamestown, the first permanent settlement by the British in North America. Rather than coming to America in pursuit of religious freedom, they came for economic reasons, sent by the Virginia Company of London. Their thanksgiving was a religious experience, giving thanks to God for their safe journey. There was no shared feast with the native people. Instead, they were almost constantly in conflict and little of the early cooperation that the Plymouth settlers engaged in remained.
The United States has never fully come to terms with the genocide it committed against the indigenous peoples of North America, or the fact that the genocide continued through the late twentieth century with the forced sterilization of Native women. To this day, cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women across North America lack thorough investigation and are thus underreported. Strict voting identification and registration laws in North Dakota disproportionately affected Native voters in the midterm elections, giving them even less of a voice in the function of the government. As of 2014, the poverty rate among Native Americans was 26 percent.
These are issues that the people from the Thanksgiving story deal with today. Yet even though we are told that they helped the early settlers survive their harsh first year in America, the descendants of these immigrants are unwilling to do the same.
It is comforting to remember a time during which there was no fighting between the colonists and the Native Americans, but it is important to recognize the hardships that Native people have faced to this day. There is no time during the year when the United States comes together to commemorate the contributions made by Native people to American history. If a certain day is not going to be set aside specifically for this purpose, then we should at least take time to remember that the colonists were not the first people here in America.