Dissecting the American Myth of Thanksgiving


A common interpretation of the American fairytale surrounding the popular Thanksgiving holiday. Source: https://www.history.com/news/first-thanksgiving-colonists-native-americans-men

Sofia Rest, Staff Writer

Disclaimer: The opinions and viewpoints expressed in the following article do not necessarily reflect those of NDP Gateway, Gateway staff, or Notre Dame Preparatory School.

As we approach the beginning of fall, you may have started to get excited about the upcoming Thanksgiving. Many American families celebrate this national holiday by serving turkey and mashed potatoes on a dinner table attended by family and friends, breaking the turkey’s wishbone, and/or watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Elementary school kids draw colorful turkeys by tracing their hands, or maybe learn about the story involving the Pilgrims and Native Americans that defines the beginning of the foundation of the United States. Most likely, you were told as a child that the “first Thanksgiving” was a bountiful feast that brought the European settlers and the Native Americans to the table together. You were told that Thanksgiving is a celebration of friendship, peace, and our country’s history.

You were lied to.

Because the Thanksgiving lore you’ve been brought up to treasure isn’t history at all. In fact, traditional American retellings of the “first Thanksgiving” are more often than not riddled with glaring inaccuracies and fairytale-like recounts of the apparent beautiful amity between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, who were the resident Native American tribe in 1621 Plymouth, Massachusetts. In reality, these stories help to weave a blanket of ignorance designed to nurture the timeless American justification of Native genocide, famine, disease, and slavery.

A little over a month ago, the United States celebrated the federal holiday Columbus Day. Schools in particular regularly host activities for kids to learn about the discovery of the Americas through this event. But the customary celebration of Columbus Day paints the arrival of Italian navigator Christopher Columbus at the Bahamas as a sort of godsend, a frighteningly similar narrative to the one surrounding Thanksgiving. Some Americans assert that since the Americas would have likely been discovered much later without the influence of Columbus, it’s important to celebrate his accomplishments and to share this history with children. The ever-present argument is, “Columbus is an important part of our history!” But the fact that Columbus is important does not justify his celebration at all. It is only until recently that Maryland decided to instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a holiday that calls for acknowledgment of Native American genocide, slavery, and centuries of maltreatment. Thanks to these steps forward, advocacy groups can more easily push for the education, financial support, and social welfare of Native Americans today. Instead of putting Columbus on an undeserved pedestal, Indigenous Peoples’ Day brings to light the struggle of the countless Native tribes that suffered first under white colonization and subsequently under racism today.

Let’s turn our focus back to Thanksgiving. Just as the myth of Columbus as a rugged, map-wielding adventurer of old pushed Indigenous voices and Indigenous rights to the side, the myth of Thanksgiving shows only one viewpoint — the white viewpoint — of the interactions between the colonizers and the Natives. Thanksgiving tells an uncompromising, ignorant narrative that seeks to forget America’s bloody, racist past and draw attention away from the similar issues our society has today. It enables white people to deny that Native voices have been suppressed for centuries, to turn their faces from contemporary injustices. It enables prejudice and discrimination.

Huge efforts have been made to destroy systemic racism towards minority groups in America, but we still have a long way to go. We cannot continue to deny any longer the realities of American history as we do today. If we are to move forward as a nation towards a more just and equal future, all of us need to begin by taking a long, hard look at ourselves and our history.

One of the many examples of the rose-colored glasses many Americans use to look at history is the story of Tisquantum (popularly known as “Squanto”), a Wampanoag man who played an integral role in the relationship between his tribe and the first Pilgrims. You may have heard or read that he was a proficient translator between the two groups, helping weave friendship and understanding. Perhaps you or someone you know argue that the tale of Tisquantum helps families celebrate the value of this friendship through language translation, that it teaches children to strive for peace. But what you probably don’t know is how Tisquantum came to learn English in the first place.

Originally, Tisquantum and twenty other Native diplomats looking to trade with Europeans were double-crossed and captured by a man named Captain Thomas Hunt, who was eager to enslave and sell them for profit back in Spain. Tisquantum was shipped to Europe, where he stayed unwillingly for four years before he finally seized an opportunity to sail home in 1618. Hitching a ride with Captain Thomas Dermer, he offered services as a translator in exchange for safe passage back to the Americas. He returned to his homeland in the hopes of reuniting with his tribe; instead, he arrived to a terrible scene: most of the Wampanoags were killed or dead due to disease.

This doesn’t sound like friendship to me at all.

This so-called “friendship” between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims can be more accurately called a tenuous alliance. This alliance was actually orchestrated by the tribe’s leader, Ousamequin, in an attempt to gain military help in fighting the nearby Narragansett tribe. The famous first Thanksgiving feast was most likely a strategic move on Ousamequin’s part to help keep the peace. And while the English did help fight off and conquer the Wampanoags’ rivals due to this alliance, eventually the Wampanoags were conquered themselves by both disease and violence, falling victim to the same fate that would ravage Native American tribes for centuries.

The appalling story of Tisquantum’s acquisition of bilingualism and his return home is never talked about or acknowledged in school. Instead, we are taught only that he was a prominent and influential translator that helped the colonists and the Wampanoags communicate. Kids grow up knowing just one side of a story so vital to understanding American history and race relations. However, we now know that Tisquantum’s backstory and the fate of the Wampanoags are far more tragic than we have been led to believe. There are many more instances, each more terrible than the last, of colonists displacing, enslaving, and murdering Indigenous people throughout history; the story behind Thanksgiving is just one example.

In order to draw the curtains back and dispel the American myth of Thanksgiving, we need to cultivate a more in-depth and historically accurate education for current and future generations. How can we keep pretending that European colonization is the only valid lens through which we should study the history of the United States? How can we turn our backs to Indigenous victims of: unemployment; rampant poverty; poor funding for the teaching of Native languages and culture; exploitation of Native reservations for profit; and inadequate education, healthcare, and quality housing? Ignoring the reality of colonization like we do today can be extremely harmful to Indigenous people, who still struggle for financial support, representation in government, and laws that condemn the prevalent racism and discrimination that define modern race relations. It’s time to face the fact that the American dream is not accessible to everyone.

We can start by talking — really talking, even if this topic makes you uncomfortable — about Thanksgiving through the perspective of Indigenous Americans. You can read up on how to support recent Native causes, educate yourself on the impacts of white colonization, or simply listen when a Native person gives their opinion. We have the ability to help bring awareness to the struggles of the Native community if only we work together to destroy the myths that currently define Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.

In conclusion: it’s okay to have dinner with your family; it’s okay to value friendship and peace; but it’s not okay to ignorantly do so at the expense of Indigenous people. So this coming Thanksgiving, when you and your family gather to have turkey, take a moment to reflect on the huge number of voices this holiday has silenced and the ways in which you can begin to dispel the American myth surrounding Thanksgiving.

Below are some links to organizations that advocate for increased Indigenous rights, representation, and support:

Works Cited

Silverman, David J. “In 1621, the Wampanoag Tribe Had Its Own Agenda.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Nov. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/thanksgiving-belongs-wampanoag-tribe/602422/.