The True Story of Thanksgiving

“The myth of Thanksgiving,” is served up with dollops of European superiority and manifest destiny.

The story of the first Thanksgiving, as most Americans have been taught, is not exactly accurate starting with the idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.

The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians – men, women and children – all murdered.

This day is still remembered today, 382 years later. No, it’s been long forgotten by White people, by European Christians. But it is still fresh in the mind of many Native Americans. A group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a stature of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the long gone Pequot. They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football game afterward.

 Mahtowin Munro (Lakota) and Moonanum James (Wampanoag co-leaders of United American Indians of New England.  write:

“About the only true thing in the whole  (thanksgiving) mythology is that   these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their   first several years in “New England” were it not for the aid of   Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this   help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression.   We are treated either as quaint relics from the past, or are,   to most people, virtually invisible.

When we dare to stand up for our rights, we are considered unreasonable. When we speak the truth about the history of the European invasion, we are often told to “go back where we came from.” Our roots are right here. They do not extend across any ocean.    

 National Day of Mourning began in 1970 when a Wampanoagman, Wamsutta Frank James, was asked to speak at a state dinner celebrating the 350th anniversary of the pilgrim landing.

He refused to speak false words in praise of the White man for bringing civilization to us poor heathens. Native people from throughout the Americas came to Plymouth, where they mourned their forebears who had been sold into slavery, burned alive, massacred, cheated, and mistreated since the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620.

“The myth of Thanksgiving, served up with dollops of European  superiority and manifest destiny, just does not work for many people in this country. As Malcolm X once said about the African-American experience in America, “We did not land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Exactly!

(Excerpted from essays by novelist, writer Arthur Richard. Greener and Lakota  and Wampanoag)