The Truth About Thanksgiving

By Clementine Paarlberg

On Thanksgiving evening, you most likely sat down with family and friends, passing around the “traditional” foods. You piled up the steaming slices of turkey, a heap of creamy mashed potatoes, and maybe some green beans to add some color to your plate. To top it all off, you flooded your plate with gravy before diving in to devour the bountiful meal on your plate. Maybe each person at your Thanksgiving table went around to proclaim what they were thankful for this year. But for the most part, your mind was focused on the food and the joy or stress of being around family. 

While you sat at your table, your mind drifting between food and family quarrels, not once did you take the time to reflect on why you were even participating in this 3 century-old tradition. In elementary school, you probably learned about how the indigenous people welcomed the English colonists with open arms and the colonists were so grateful that they all came together to eat this big feast known as Thanksgiving. You were taught that the meal celebrated unity and new beginnings. Truthfully, this is a glossed over, whitewashed version of the events surrounding the “joyous” holiday most Americans celebrate each year. 

The real history of Thanksgiving has been twisted into an event that Americans are supposed to be proud of. In reality, Thanksgiving wasn’t one of the first interactions between colonists and the indigenous tribe the Wampanoag near Plymouth. By 1620, European colonists and Wampanoags had been waging conflict for many years. In addition to violence, diseases that came across the ocean with Europeans spread among the Indigenous tribe rapidly. These outbreaks reduced the population of tribes in New England between 1616 and 1619 by almost 90%. In 1615, French explorers arrived near modern-day Plymouth and carried with them a disease that most historians believe was smallpox. After generations of exposure to the disease, most Europeans had developed immunity, but the Wampanoags had never been exposed. Thomas Dermer, an English explorer, described Massachusetts in 1619 as “ancient plantations, not long since populous, now utterly void; in other places, a remnant remains, but not free of sickness.” Surrounding Plymouth were abandoned and disease-ravaged Native American villages. The devastation and disease that European colonists brought left indigenous tribes in fear of coming in contact with them.

However, when spring arrived, the leader of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, chose to create a peace alliance with the settlers. Throughout the spring of 1621, the Wampanoags taught the settlers how to survive on land that wasn’t even their own. By fall there was a feast to commemorate thanks for the harvest that the indigenous people had helped the English to achieve. 

Every year after the original Thanksgiving, indigenous tribes across the colonies continued to be slaughtered and kidnapped in mass numbers until their land was taken over by settlers. Native American culture rapidly disappeared in this country and continues to be forgotten every year that the tradition of Thanksgiving continues. 

Many Native Americans across the country do not celebrate Thanksgiving but instead carry out a National Day of Mourning. This title for the day that is supposed to represent relations between the Indigenous and the colonists is more truthful. It is time that the United States stops turning its back on the truths of its history. The more stories we hear, the more we learn. We must wipe away the white colonial perspective from our minds and listen to indigenous voices and follow the lead of indigenous people. Everyone in the United States lives on indigenous land that was soiled with the blood of the many slaughtered tribes. 

The question you must ask yourself before celebrating Thanksgiving next year is if partaking in the National Day of Mourning is a more reflective and ethical way to spend your time. Even if Thanksgiving to you only means expressing what you are thankful for and spending time with family, the origins of the holiday are splattered with the blood of colonial slaughter. By carrying out a “normal” Thanksgiving you are turning your back on the erasure of Native Americans and being ignorant of the real history of the United States. If you take the time to educate yourself on what really happened between the indigenous people and colonists, you may discover that your history books have it all wrong.