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Historical realities of Thanksgiving

Published Nov. 7, 2022

BY SOPHIA BONE

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is swiftly approaching, and for most that means a happy holiday known for turkey, gravy, family and football. But for many Indigenous peoples throughout the country, it is the National Day of Mourning during which America’s dark history is acknowledged. 

As is often taught in elementary school classes and recognized as myth on websites such as The Smithsonian Institute’s, the first Thanksgiving was November 1621 and is remembered as a peaceful autumnal feast celebrated by the Plymouth colonists and members of the Wampanoag Nation after a successful harvest year. Ever since, Americans come together on the fourth Thursday of November to celebrate all that the nation is thankful for.

The truth is more complex than what is commonly believed, according to some scholars who question the familiar story and members of the Wampanoag Nation and other Indigenous groups, who in recent years have come forward to tell the tale of Thanksgiving as remembered by their ancestors. 

This includes Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer who told Indian Country Today Media Network what she grew up believing in a 2012 interview. According to Peters, Wampanoag chief Massasoit and 90 of his men went over to Plymouth to check out the noise the pilgrims were making as part of their celebration of their first harvest. At this point, the two groups had a treaty that said they would support one another and Massasoit thought they were being attacked. There was no planned meal, and it was simply an accident that the Wampanoag arrived. 

“The native people saved the pilgrims, and when you are taught the difference, you wonder how it is still believed to be a holiday,” mentions Louise Miranda Ramirez, current Tribal Chairwoman of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation. 

The harmony between colonists and Indigenous peoples did not last long, according to sources such as Smithsonian Magazine, as the Wampanoag were still regarded as “savages” and the colonists began to take over their land and would later thank them for their help with starting their own communities with foreign diseases that would drastically impact their tribes. 

The tradition most Americans now know and love came to be celebrated due to 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who announced Thanksgiving to be a national holiday during the Civil War when tensions within the country were high. He painted the picture of unity between Indigenous peoples of the land and the colonists in hopes to spread that togetherness throughout a separate country. 

So, how should Americans celebrate this holiday in a way that honors all the lives that were impacted by the colonists so many years ago?

Members of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen nation at the at the Lower Presidio, one of their largest village sites. (photo by JIM McNULTY)

Enjoying time with family and friends during the holiday, Ramirez says, is not something that needs to go away. Actually, celebrating those connections in our lives are what Indigenous peoples in the community practice as well. Instead of thanking the colonists who came across the ocean and “discovered” the land Californians now live on, they celebrate the lives and legacies of the Indigenous peoples in our community. 

“We call it ‘Survivor Supper’ because we are here and because we survived,” says Ramirez.

The Monterey Peninsula is located on the territory of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, and there are currently many groups throughout the area working to get more representation and raise awareness about the diverse and rich history that took place here many years ago. The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County is an example of this with a main goal of protecting sacred lands and archaeological sites to preserve their cultural heritage.

Learning more about active groups in the community, along with donating time, is one way to honor the lives that were lost during this early time in United States history. Ramirez recommends those interested in learning more to check out the publishing company Heyday, as they promote Indigenous works. 

While it was a tragic past, Indigenous members throughout the country are encouraging others that staying curious and open can help mend that damage for the future. 

Latest comment

  • Excellent article that highlights the true history of our country. Well done!

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