The story of Thanksgiving is complex. The common story builds off historic misconceptions adapted and mainstreamed over time. To unearth a true story and adapt to a meaningful celebration, it’s necessary to decolonize the stories we tell.
Here’s what we know: There was a celebratory harvest feast between the English that survived their first winter in Massachusetts and the Wampanoag people in 1621. Neither group knew that this meal would later be considered the first Thanksgiving. For the Wampanoag people, it was far from first. The Wampanoag held several seasonal ceremonies that resembled the harvest feast in 1621. The only difference was that the meal in 1621 was the Pilgrims’ first harvest festival. A European author revised from a 17th-century document to create the idea that it was the First Thanksgiving.
Whether in a Charlie Brown special or a Hallmark greeting card, the pervasive narrative is that pilgrims landed in an empty, abandoned Native American settlement known as the village of Pawtuxet (now Plymouth, Massachusetts). The Indigenous people and the pilgrims were friendly with each other. Connections were made. Corn and turkey shared. Everyone was so thankful.
The parts that don’t make the story highlights involve a plague brought by European fishermen to the east coast that decimated the Indigenous population between 1616 and 1618. Or the kidnapping of Tisquantum, a man commonly called Squanto, known for translating for pilgrim settlers in Pawtuxet. He was kidnapped for five years by an English sea captain, which is how he learned to speak English, and when he came back to his village, it was wiped out and replaced by an English settlement.
According to Many Hoops Around Thanksgiving, the holiday represents the pain Native Americans experienced and continue to experience because of European settlement, a history that sits at odds with the present-day celebration meal focused on gratitude.
Celebrating a fall harvest isn’t the issue with the holiday. It’s important to pause and feel gratitude, and it’s a tradition for many families to host a celebratory feast. The problem with how Thanksgiving is usually celebrated is with the fake cornucopia and the inaccurate stories that continue to cause harm to Indigenous people.
Keep the pilgrim salt shakers in storage and find a genuine way to understand and honor our coexistence with Indigenous people this Thanksgiving.