Thanksgiving: a Day of Mourning for Many Native Americans

A history of genocide stains the Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1637, white settlers burned alive 700 Pequot Indian men, women and children in a peaceful village near the site of modern-day Mystic, Connecticut. It’s known to historians as the Mystic Massacre. It also marks the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration on what is now US soil. Dozens of similar local and regional Thanksgivings followed over the next decades and centuries. Always to celebrate the slaughter of Native peoples.

Most Americans are sadly unaware.

William Bradford

Statue of former Plymouth Governor William Bradford, an attendee of the 1621 Thanksgiving feast. “It was fearful to see them thus frying in the fire…but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice…to God.”

(“The tribe that saved the Pilgrims was nearly killed off in a genocidal campaign for land.”)

Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. But the central myth of a shared meal, representing harmony and understanding

between whites and Native Americans, hadn’t yet entered the national consciousness. Only in the 1920s did annual celebrations of the Pilgrims’ survival of that first, harsh winter begin in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

American Indians share disdain toward a holiday myth that whitewashes a history of genocide. That mythical meal of goodwill is rehashed and ingrained in the minds of schoolchildren, year after year. But how long before they hear a peep about the harsh realities of the Trail of Tears? Or the Indian Wars to exterminate the buffalo and millions of indigenous peoples in the American West?

(Turkey wasn’t on the menu? The Pilgrims never actually invited the Indians to the feast? Thanksgiving facts are quite different from the familiar story.)

Some Native Americans celebrate a revisionist version of Thanksgiving. Emphasizing the goodwill of American Indians toward struggling newcomers – even despite their well-earned distrust of whites. “We live up to that spirit of Thanksgiving cuz we invite all of our most desperately lonely white friends to come eat with us,” quips award-winning author Sherman Alexie. “From the very beginning, Indians have been taking care of brokenhearted white people.”

Squanto almost singlehandedly saved the Pilgrims by teaching them the three-sisters approach to sustainable farming, how to hunt, and in many other ways. Yet Squanto spoke fluent English because he was forcibly taken to Europe as a slave in 1605. European slave ships had raided the coast of New England for almost a century before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Many American Indians protest the Thanksgiving celebration. In 1970, Native peoples in New England began their Day of Mourning on the same day as Thanksgiving. They share a meal and make speeches on Cole’s Hill, overlooking the city of Plymouth and its harbor in somber remembrance, and they happily educate some of the many tourists who come to partake in the city’s official festivities about both past, and continuing, injustices against Native Americans.

Unthanksgiving is a similar protest on the West Coast. Crowds gather on Thanksgiving day at Alcatraz to honor its famous takeover by the American Indian Movement in 1969.

I see, in the “First Thanksgiving” story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale that needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.

Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.

Because if we can survive, with out ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the goodwill that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle.

And the healing can begin.

Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux

Related content:

The Thanksgiving Day Myth: A Whitewash of Genocide?

We Celebrate November as Native American Heritage Month

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