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The Truth About Thanksgiving

A small group of children are sitting around the circular rug, gazing up at their teacher eagerly. They wiggle around impatiently in their warm sweaters, looking for a distraction at the barren trees through the window as their teacher takes out a picture book with a turkey on the cover. They’re so excited for the story that it takes a few minutes for the teacher to calm them down and gain their attention.

Once the picture book is open and the teacher begins to speak, the children fall silent, as if a spell had been cast over them. With wide eyes they listen to the story of the Pilgrims who came to North America on the Mayflower and befriended the Native Americans. They let out small gasps of happiness as the pilgrims and Native Americans gather around a large table and eat together, talking about unity and how amazing it is to have become friends. The teacher reads the last line of the story before closing the picture book, sending a kind smile towards the children and dismissing them for their one week break. She wishes them each a happy Thanksgiving and receives short replies as the children scramble about for their coats and race out the door and into the cool November air.

At some point in our lives, we’ve all been told a similar happy version of the tale about the beginning of Thanksgiving and what it represents. But there is much more to the story than a friendly feast between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims.

To start off, the three day feast that the Pilgrims had with the Wampanoag Tribe wasn’t considered “thanksgiving” but “rejoicing,” which leaves the question of when exactly was the “first Thanksgiving” up to debate. The Pilgrims actually fasted and prayed during Thanksgiving, and they usually did this in remembrance of the massacres of the Native Americans, ever since Massachusetts Colony Governor John Winthrop declared a day of “thanksgiving” after volunteers murdered 700 Pequot people in 1637.

Some may argue that the three day meal the Pilgrims held was proof of friendship between the two groups, but the truth is that the settlers did not even invite the members of the Wampanoag Tribe to the feast. Ousamequin, the leader of the tribe allied with the settlers, wanted to uphold his promise and came to help when he heard gunshots (that were actually celebratory) coming from the settlement. It was only after the confusion was cleared up and some further discussion between the two groups that the settlers and the Wampanoag Tribe decided to spend three days together at the feast. However, this coming together that many imagine to have been the start of a great change wasn’t exactly as warm and friendly as they thought, as afterwards the atrocities committed against the Native Americans increased and worsened.

Now, almost four hundred years later, people are beginning to realize the terrible truth behind Thanksgiving and choose to view the holiday as a National Day of Mourning, to remember the mass genocide committed by the settlers. "Participants in the National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience,” says the United American Indians of New England. The National Day of Mourning is a way of bringing peace to their hearts and honoring their fallen ancestors.

Other people, like Sean Sherman, founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef and the author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, offer a new perspective on Thanksgiving that sheds a positive light on the holiday. "The thing is, we do not need the poisonous 'pilgrims and Indians' narrative. We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk about and think about anyway: the food.”

While the picture Thanksgiving evokes in one’s mind may be tainted by its origin, there are ways to celebrate it as a positive holiday. Although we cannot undo the atrocities committed towards the Native Americans by the European settlers, we can still do our best to support Native American communities. Learning about challenges that Native Americans are still facing today, educating and steering others away from offensive Native American stereotypes, and donating to local Native American organizations are all ways we all can contribute to a positive Thanksgiving celebration.

Let’s remember that kindness frees the spirit, brings peace, and heals the deepest wounds. As we all have much to be grateful for, let’s choose to do good and be generous towards others not only during this time of giving but also always. This simple but profound choice would make each one of our days an uplifting Thanksgiving holiday of triumph and hope.


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