The American holiday of Thanksgiving is a popular holiday in which families and loved ones come together to celebrate and share a meal to replicate the narrative of the first Thanksgiving meal among Pilgrims and Native Americans and how it was a "peaceful gathering". The truth about Thanksgiving is that it is a racist and painful mythological narrative for many Indigenous Peoples' who face generations of genocide, theft of stolen lands, erasure of identity, and white supremacy. In the article, "Truthsgiving: The True History of Thanksgiving And how you can support Native communities this holiday and beyond,"by Jackie Menjivar, describes the term Truthsgiving, a concept coined by Indigenous activist Christine Nobiss is created dismantle common misunderstandings about Thanksgiving and representation of Indigenous peoples throughout American History. Menjivar further describes why Thanksgiving is harmful through examples of accurate history told from the perspectives of the Wampanoag tribe along with other examples of the true treatment of Indigenous people. This article calls for a call to action of what we do to not participate in the erasure of Indigenous people by learning true history, learning about Indigenous cuisine, acknowledging whose traditional land you are residing in and so much more. The article will be listed down below.
Thanksgiving is a time for celebration, good food, and giving thanks. So as we gather with family, crush unworldly amounts of stuffing, and enjoy a football game in the crisp autumn air, let's also acknowledge the real history of the holiday and practice gratitude by giving back.
This year, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving and also Truthsgiving, a concept coined by Indigenous activist Christine Nobiss to dismantle common misunderstandings about Thanksgiving with...well, the truth. So in the name of Truthsgiving, here’s the true history of this holiday (and what you can do about it).
We'd like to thank IllumiNative for their collaboration on this piece and for providing resources and campaigns that increase the visibility of Native Nations and peoples in American society.
What’s the Real Story of Thanksgiving?
“The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.”
Wamsutta Frank James, Wampanoag activist and organizer of the National Day of Mourning
The “first Thanksgiving,” as a lot of folks understand it, was in 1621 between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag* tribe in present-day Massachusetts. While records indicate that this celebration did happen, there are a few misconceptions we need to clear up. Because of the erasure (in other words, removal and exclusion) of Native American narratives from the histories a lot of us were taught, we’ve been left with an incomplete picture of what really happened. So here’s the full story.
There’s no evidence that the Wampanoag people were even invited in the first place. An account from the time said 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe were present and makes no mention of invitations. Some experts believe that these 90 men were an army, sent by Wampanoag leader Ousamequin at the sound of gunshots (which turned out to be a part of the celebration).
In their first encounter with the Wampanoag people, the Pilgrims stole from the tribe’s winter provisions -- it wasn’t until later that Ousamequin formed an alliance between the groups. Even then, the alliance really only existed because the Wampanoag people were ravaged by diseases brought by European colonizers in the years prior. It was less about intercultural harmony and more about survival (made necessary by the actions of these settlers).
That first harvest was followed by deadly conflicts between colonizers and Native people, including (but definitely not limited to) the Wampanoags. The Europeans repaid their Native allies by seizing Native land and imprisoning, enslaving, and executing Native people.
*Today, the Wampanoag make up two federally recognized tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
Why Haven’t I Heard This Before?
“Many students still complete an American education unsure about the place of Native people in the nation’s past—or in its present.”
Phillip Deloria, Harvard professor and scholar of Native American history
Unfortunately, a lot of US schools just don’t accurately teach Native American history -- or sometimes don’t teach Native American history at all. But the fact is, Native American history is American history. November is National Native American History Month, which makes it the perfect time to learn about the role Native people have played in shaping our country.
Here’s the other thing to keep in mind: Native people are a part of the past, and they’re also very much a part of our country’s present (and future). About 87% of state-level history standards don’t mention Native American history after 1900, but Native American people have had a huge impact on contemporary US society. Take, for example, Joy Harjo, the first Native American poet laureate, the young Indigenous activists who are fighting for their communities, and the record number of lawmakers bringing Native representation to government.
(From left to right: Anthony Tamez-Pochel, Autumn Peltier, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Charitie Ropati)
Why Does It Matter?
“To me, Thanksgiving is a reminder of our resistance as Indigenous People navigating this settler society that continuously tries to erase and destroy us, yet we are still here.”
Allen Salway, writer and community organizer from the Navajo Nation
We can’t use inaccurate histories to inform our understanding of Native communities. The erasure of Native narratives and voices contributes to the invisibility of Native people and issues. By recognizing the true history of these events, we can affirm the experiences of Native communities and do a better job of tackling the systemic issues that they have faced (and continue to face) as a result. After all, how can you properly address a problem if you don’t understand its root causes?
What Can I Do?
“It’s past time to honor the Indigenous resistance, tell our story as it really happened, and undo romanticized notions of the holiday that have long suppressed our perspective.”
Christine Nobiss, Indigenous activist and Decolonizer with Seed Sovereignty
Some folks skip Thanksgiving altogether and opt for Native-led events, like the National Day of Mourning held in Plymouth since 1970 or the Indigenous People Sunrise Ceremony held in California since 1969.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving by feasting with family, watching the parade, and going back for seconds (...or thirds), there are also some simple, impactful things you can do to help combat Native erasure this holiday:
Celebrate Indigenous cuisine. Add one of these recipes from Indigenous chefs to your Thanksgiving spread, with a focus on local, sustainable ingredients.
Speak about Native peoples in a respectful way. Look over this Do and Don’t guide for allies, and use it to start conversations with your friends.
Learn and teach the true history of Native people. You can help shape your education. Present these lesson plans to your teacher (Native People Today, Impact of Native Americans, and The Future is Indigenous Coloring Book) and ask them to engage in discussions about Native Americans, their history, and their impact.
Acknowledge whose land you’re on at this very moment. Enter your zip code to find out whose traditional territories you’re residing on. Take a minute to learn more about them and honor their enduring relationship to the land.
Support Native-lead initiatives. Watch and share this mini-documentary about the Fort Belknap Indian Community’s fight against the Keystone Pipeline.