The modern-day Thanksgiving is a world of difference from the first Thanksgiving. Even though we still make an effort to show our gratitude towards our loved ones and other blessings we’ve experienced throughout the year, we are oftentimes way more concerned with football, our annual holiday meal, Black Friday shopping or a break from work. This begs the question, why haven’t we continued the true tradition of the seasonal festivities and attempted at reminding ourselves of the original meaning?
The first Thanksgiving, according to History.com, took place on Nov. 24, 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag tribe held a harvest feast to celebrate the colonies. Only a year prior, the colonists sailed on the Mayflower and arrived in the Americas as they were looking for religious freedom and land acquisition.
Their first winter proved to be harsh, with half of the Europeans suffering from various diseases which led to their death because they refused to leave the ship. As the weather started to improve, however, they ventured off onto the grounds and met members from the Abenaki tribe and the Patuxet tribe, one of the most commonly known members being Squanto.
Squanto shared his knowledge of malnutrition and illness with the Pilgrims and taught them how to properly take part in agriculture. In return, created an alliance between the Wampanoags and the Europeans as it led them to successfully harvest for themselves; therefore, creating the first Thanksgiving. This is the story most of us have grown up on, and considering history.com displays, something we continue to spread. But is it actually factual?
The easiest misconception about Thanksgiving is what foods were really at the first celebratory meal. It did not consist of what we eat today, as we commonly put a roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and other dishes on our dining room table. Although it is not confirmed, it is assumed that the Pilgrims and Natives would’ve most likely had deer, swan or geese as their main source of meat alongside shellfish like mussels, oysters or lobster. Their sides also would’ve more accurately consisted of corn, lettuce, onions, squash or beans – no potatoes or cranberries, and definitely no pie.
Our “typical Thanksgiving meal” wasn’t introduced until the 1800s. As more people started to celebrate, cooks from around the United States modified the menu to add dishes that people enjoyed or thought were nutritional; creating the annual dinner we have today.
The more harmful, false impressions about the Natives and the Pilgrims, however, is that the feast didn’t happen over unification, but it was the natives conceding to colonialism. In an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, David Silverman Ph.D., an Early America and Native America professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University, notes the common and dangerous inaccuracies about Thanksgiving: one being that history for Native people doesn’t start until Europeans arrived.
The Mayflower’s story proves to dismiss the background of the Natives, as it gives the impression that history only starts with the European’s arrival. Yet, Silverman states that “Wampanoags had a century of contact with Europeans–it was bloody and it involved slave raiding by Europeans” and some Wampanoags knew English already, which proved they previously traveled “to Europe and back and knew the very organizers of the Pilgrims’ venture.”
The Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, attempted to create an alliance with the pilgrims at Plymouth, which most tribal members disagreed with as they were more concerned with making an alliance with other tribes and “getting rid of” the English due to their raids and enslavement of their people. Ousamequin fought for this meal because he saw it as an opportunity to join forces to fight off tribal rebels instead. In the end, our modern-day Thanksgiving “doesn’t address the deterioration of this relationship culminating in one of the most horrific colonial Indian wars on record, King Philip’s War,” and also doesn’t address “Wampanoag survival and adaptation over the centuries, which is why they’re still here, despite the odds.”
So, when it comes time to celebrate Thanksgiving, we should still continue our annual practice of giving thanks, but we should also take a second look and stay mindful of the fact that the founding of America destroyed our Native Americans. Just as we have recently re-imagined Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s time to call attention to Thanksgiving as it should be the time to highlight the true recounts of history.
There are simple ways to recorrect your habits this season; the most significant being to learn the true history of the Pilgrims and Native Americans – not the whitewashed or simplified version we learn in school. The best resources are to educate yourself by listening to Ingenious people’s voices or reading their accurate narratives. You should also reintroduce Native American dishes to your dinner rather than sticking with the inaccurately modified menu. Lastly, consider supporting local Native communities or donating to their causes.
If we continue to fail at recognizing the true meaning behind Thanksgiving and the founding of America, we continue to invalidate the experience of the Native Americans. Not to mention, when we become blind to accurate historical happenings, it increases the likelihood of history repeating itself in ways that we won’t like.