The Dark History of Thanksgiving

By Cliona Perrick / November 11, 2020
Dark history of thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a beloved and widely celebrated holiday in America as well as other countries including Canada and Brazil. The holiday is most widely celebrated in America. The annual holiday usually celebrates the year’s blessings and harvests. In America the holiday occurs on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving is a holiday that is becoming more and more popular outside of America, with friend groups often partaking in “Friendsgiving”, where friends host a potluck style dinner and give thanks. 

Dark History of Thanksgiving

The holiday originates from the first encounter of the pilgrims and the Native Americans. In 1621 the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. It is a widely celebrated feast, story and celebration. However the history of Thanksgiving has its dark origins that are often forgotten about during the time of the national holiday. 

The Widely Known Story  

The most famous story of Thanksgiving is a story which depicts a peaceful feast between the Plymouth settlers and Native Americans. The child friendly version of this story is that the two parties gave thanks and had a large feast, with the English and natives eating together. The story tells of the friendly local Native Americans and how they swooped in to teach the struggling colonists how to survive in the New World.

The celebration was said to last three days. The modern day celebration is even different to this. It involved a large meal that includes foods such as turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie. The turkey and mashed potatoes are very similar to what Irish people eat for their Christmas dinners. The popular story is one of peace, thanks and coming together, however, this isn’t exactly an accurate story. 

A Forgotten History 

For such a widely celebrated and beloved holiday, many forget that its history is one that is often watered down, and digestible to Americans and those who celebrate it. The story itself is child friendly with many story books on the celebration. However there is a dark truth to 

Thanksgiving. Often the Native Americans are forgotten about, and their truth regarding Thanksgiving is dismissed. The New York Times in 2017 had an article titled “Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong”. The article states how myths and stories around the holiday have blended together so much that the story most know now isn’t accurate. Children are taught about the holiday in a concise and ultimately watered way that skims over the history of settlers and the Native Americans.

Often children’s books simplify the story to the more pleasant version, as well as animated shows such as the famous Mouse on the Mayflower which came out in 1968. These depictions not only misinformed a generation, but also enforced an abundance of cringeworthy stereotypes. The peaceful story often erases the harsh reality many Native American people faced when they were colonised. The beloved and celebrated holiday and story that Americans love is not the true story.

The Real Story of Thanksgiving

Although there is some truth that there was a large feast between the pilgrims and Native Americans that was a cross cultural event, it is widely taught that the feast of thanksgiving was the beginning of peace between the settlers and the Native Americans. This is not true; in reality peace did not last, and only a generation after the feast a bloody war ensued between the Wampanoag.

There are also recordings of thanksgiving celebrations long before Plymouth; the holiday itself was not even declared a holiday on the 1621 date, instead Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863. For the Wampanoag people the English settlers brought a slew of problems along with them disrupting their everyday life. By the 17th century English colonists were pouring into the region by the boatload. With that they brought disease; according to The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History  disease had already reduced the Native American population in New England by as much as 90% from 1616 to 1619, after this many indigenous people continued to die from what the colonists called “Indian fever”. 

The peace that was offered to the settlers by the Wampanoag was not kept in good faith, instead the alliance that was made  was tested by colonial land expansion; this led to the further  spread of disease, and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land. The expansion caused tension which led to the war known as King Philip’s War. The conflict from this war devastated the Wampanoag’s and forever shifted the balance of power in favor of European arrivals.

Erasing Native American Pain 

The holiday is often seen to many Native Americans as a national day of mourning. Many atrocities were inflicted on the Native people as well as disease devastating their population. According to Delish, for Native Americans “seeing people celebrating the positive myth around Thanksgiving can be frustrating and painful for some”. The overall celebration of the holiday whilst not acknowledging the wars and devastation that followed is ultimately erasing a tragic past.

According to Culturacolectiva, “to say Native Americans suffered greatly with the arrival of ambitious conquerors, to put it mildly”. Their homes were obliterated, their way of life was basically destroyed, and their community was massacred. The national day of mourning to many is a reminder to Natives how their land and culture were stolen and their people enslaved and murdered. 

Controversial Holidays

The controversy around the holiday is likened to that of Columbus Day which is celebrated in America also. This holiday is celebrated in October and marks when Christopher Columbus arrived in America. The celebration of this holiday is controversial for three reasons: the use of violence and slavery, the forced conversion of native peoples to Christianity and the introduction of a host of new diseases that would have long-term effects on the native people. Columbus also misnamed the native people “Indians” as he thought he was in India. The celebration of this holiday is similar to that of Thanksgiving as it erases the painful history of Native Americans. 

The erasure of the dark truth of Thanksgiving is harmful and paired with the fact some non-native people dress up in things like native head dressed to honour thanksgiving, it can be seen as inappropriate to their culture whilst not giving any actual recognition or thought to the true history. 

See the Washington Posts article on, Perspective | Making Indian headdresses in school is a terrible way to teach kids about Thanksgiving.  

Celebrating Whilst Being Aware

A big question is how does one celebrate such a holiday in a way that doesn’t contribute to the hurt and erasure of Native American people and their culture.  A great way to do this is simply be informed of the past, read up on the topic and educate yourself on what really happened between the settlers and Native Americans. According to DoSomething.org one could celebrate through a concept called Truthsgiving, this was coined by Indigenous activist Christine Nobiss.

This concept aims to dismantle common misunderstandings about Thanksgiving with the truth. The best way to celebrate the holiday consciously is to not ignore the dark and complicated history behind it. It is important to be mindful of the pain that was caused to Native Americans, and you can also encourage your family and friends to be mindful too. 

Another option would be to donate to Native American organisations. According to Bustle, today Indigenous people face higher rates of mental illness, sexual assault, and mortality than other Americans. 

This Thanksgiving, why not consider donating to a non-profit organization that helps people who are negatively affected by systemic oppression and colonialism in the first place. Just because the holiday has a dark past doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate it instead by being aware and informed, as to not aid in the erasure of history try to adopt the concept of “Truthsgiving”. 

See some charities to donate to here: 6 Native American and Indigenous Charities to Donate to for Indigenous Peoples’ Day & Thanksgiving  

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Cliona Perrick

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