To many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate. It’s a time when families come together to eat good food, watch a parade and football games, and prepare for Black Friday sales. But sadly, for many Native Americans, this holiday isn’t a day of celebration. Keep reading to learn about the true origins of Thanksgiving and discover new traditions to start with your little feminist.
The Story We Know
The Thanksgiving story that is often shared goes something like this:
- The Pilgrims left England and sailed to America on the Mayflower to escape religious persecution in 1620.
- When the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, they found land that was suitable for growing crops and named it Plymouth. They started to build houses in the winter, but many of them became sick and died.
- In the spring, the Pilgrims were greeted by Samoset and Squanto. Squanto spoke English and helped the Pilgrims survive by showing them how to grow food and hunt.
- To thank the Native Americans for their help, the Pilgrims prepared a feast and invited the Native Americans to eat with them. It was a grand celebration that lasted for three days.
Similar versions of this story can be found in several children’s books and textbooks, but these accounts are from a European perspective and leave out several important details about the Pilgrims’ early years.
The Voyage on the Mayflower
Firstly, the Pilgrims did not sail from England to America because of religious persecution. They sailed from England to Holland for this reason, and they fled England all the way back in 1608. However, after rapidly losing members and money, the Leyden congregation in Holland asked for assistance from England (the country they were so keen to leave) in order to finance a trip to America where they believed they would do better financially. So, the Pilgrim’s trip to America had very little to do with religious persecution and a whole lot to do with improving their economic standing.
It’s Not a “New World” When People are Already There
Several Thanksgiving accounts state that the Pilgrims came to the New World and called it Plymouth. However, there was nothing “new” about this land because Native Americans were living on it for thousands of years. The land that would be called Plymouth by the Pilgrims was originally called Patuxet by the Wampanoag tribe. Although in 1616, four years prior to the Pilgrim’s arrival, European traders sailed to the area and brought a plague that killed thousands of tribal members. Several others were sold as slaves.
Squanto’s Sad Reality
Yes, Squanto was a Native American who spoke English and was able to help the Pilgrims. This is the part of the story that is often highlighted in the first Thanksgiving re-telling. What isn’t discussed is how Squanto learned English in the first place. Back in 1614, Squanto and several other members of the Patuxet tribe were tricked into boarding the ship of an English trader named Thomas Hunt, who later sold them into slavery in Europe. Squanto then spent several years working for a well-off Englishmen named John Slaney, which is how he learned to speak English. Squanto eventually made it back to his hometown in 1619, but by then, his entire tribe had been wiped out by the plague brought by the English traders in 1616.
An Accidental Feast
We’re all familiar with the Thanksgiving Day illustrations that depict peaceful, happy Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around a table enjoying a large feast complete with turkey, corn, and potatoes, but these pictures are far from the truth. The Native Americans were never invited to a feast as a thank-you for their generosity towards the Pilgrims. They heard gunfire coming from a Pilgrim village and were concerned about being attacked. This prompted the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, and several Native American warriors to visit the Pilgrims, and they were invited to stay for a feast upon their arrival. However, there was not enough food for everyone, so Massasoit sent out some of his warriors who returned with several deer. The feast did in fact last for three days, but the menu was quite different from what is typically depicted.
Thanksgiving from a Native American Perspective
While the concept of “giving thanks” is incorporated into Native American culture on a daily basis, the actual Thanksgiving holiday is a time when several Native Americans come together to mourn. The United American Indians of New England declared the fourth Thursday in November as a National Day of Mourning. On this day, Native Americans mourn the theft of their land and the genocide of whole tribes by the hands of the Pilgrims. School children often hear about the three-day feast that the Native Americans and Pilgrims shared, but they don’t hear about the Pequot Massacre that took place a few years later. They also don’t hear about how the Pilgrims also stole food from the Wampanoag tribe and robbed their graves, all after the Pilgrims signed a peace treaty with the Native Americans back in the spring of 1621.
A New Way to Celebrate
This Thanksgiving, in the midst of food preparations, take the time to re-educate your children about what really happened during this period in history and consider adding in some new holiday traditions. We recommend spending some time learning more about Native American culture. Below is a list of books to help you on your learning journey:
- For ages 0-2
Gentle and heartwarming, My Heart Fills with Happiness is a touching book about Native American joy.
What We Love: The playful and simplistic illustrations in this book provide a charming look into Native American culture.
Things to Know: The author dedicated this book to former Indian Residential School students and their families, which makes this book even more endearing!
- For ages 1-8
Written in beautiful verse, The People Shall Continue is a bittersweet look at history from a Native American perspective.
What We Love: This book covers a broad range of history, spanning all the way from creation to the period where Native Americans are forced to live on reservations. Additionally, The People Shall Continue fights the concept that Native American culture no longer exists.
Things to Know: Since many Native American stories are told aloud, this book is written in rhythmic verse that mimics the pattern used in traditional oral storytelling.
- For ages 3-6
Vividly illustrated and a lyrical read, We are Water Protectors is an impactful story about the importance of caring for the Earth’s water supply.
What We Love: The illustrations in the book are simply breathtaking! And the metaphor of the Dakota Access pipeline as the “Black Snake” expertly conveys the damage it could do.
Things to Know: Native American authors and illustrators are rarely published, but We are Water Protectors was both written and illustrated by Native American women!
- For ages 3-6
Learn about a yummy traditional Native American recipe through this adorably fun book!
What We Love: Fry Bread is filled with texture-rich illustrations that showcase a modern Native American family that is made up of several races. Also, the intricate illustrations of the bread itself will make you and your little feminist want to start cooking!
Things to Know: Thankfully, the author provides a recipe for fry bread in the back of the book, so you and your little feminist can make your own once you’re finished reading.
While re-educating and reading Native American literature is a great start, if you’re interested in giving back this holiday season, consider making a donation to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Unfortunately, this tribe is still currently struggling to gain rights under the U.S. government which is hampering their ability to preserve their culture. Proceeds from purchases of the wonderful books we recommend in this post will also be donated to the tribe. Click the books above to shop our Bookshop page!
We hope your Thanksgiving holiday is full of good food, thankfulness, and the joy of learning!
Native Hope . (n.d.). What Does Thanksgiving Mean to Native Americans? . Retrieved from Native Hope : https://blog.nativehope.org/what-does-thanksgiving-mean-to-native-americans
Republic of Lakotah . (n.d.). Cooking the History Books: The Thanksgiving Massacre. Retrieved from Republic of Lakotah : http://www.republicoflakotah.com/2009/cooking-the-history-books-the-thanksgiving-massacre/
Sherman, S. (2019, November 11th). The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday . Retrieved from TIME : https://time.com/5457183/thanksgiving-native-american-holiday/
Srinivasan, B. (2018, April 6th). Who Paid for the Mayflower? . Retrieved from Foundation of Economic Education : https://fee.org/articles/who-paid-for-the-mayflower/
Tirado, M. (2011, November 23rd). The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story . Retrieved from Indian Country Today : https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/the-wampanoag-side-of-the-first-thanksgiving-story-TmMLTgQs40aJT_n9T3RMIQ
Toensing, G. C. (2017, April 1st). Native History: First Wampanoag-Pilgrim Treaty Signed on April Fools’. Retrieved from Indian Country Today: https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/native-history-first-wampanoag-pilgrim-treaty-signed-on-april-fools-yMBKHlUG1Um0bXtNi2VVLQ
Woolf, C. (2014, November 17th). Native Americans get the chance to tell their side of the Pilgrim story. Retrieved from The World : https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-11-17/native-americans-get-chance-tell-their-side-pilgrim-story
Zinn Education Project . (n.d.). May 26th, 1637: Pequot Massacre. Retrieved from Zinn Education Project : https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/pequot-massacre/