For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.
Alas, while attending the recent National Women’s Studies Association conference in Denver, I was reminded of the importance of remembering the true history behind the day when I saw someone in attendance wearing this shirt, which reads “Genocide – Poverty - Hunger / No Thanks / No Giving! /What are you Celebrating? / Give Thanks Everyday.
I would hazard a guess that probably 95 percent of Americans don’t know that there were at least two “first” Thanksgivings. The story most of us know is of the day in 1621 when Pilgrims and Native Americans supposedly shared in a harvest feast. For what really happened at this time, I defer to Dr. Tingba Apidta, who notes:
According to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though it later became known as ‘Thanksgiving,’ the Pilgrims never called it that. And amidst the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony is some of the most terrifying bloodshed in New World history.
The Pilgrims invited the Indian Sachem Massasoit to their feast, and it was Massasoit, engaging in the tribal tradition of equal sharing, who then invited ninety or more of his Indian brothers and sisters–to the annoyance of the 50 or so ungrateful Europeans. No turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie was served; they likely ate duck or geese and the venison from the five deer brought by Massasoit. In fact, most, if not all, of the food was probably brought and prepared by the Indians, whose 10,000-year familiarity with the cuisine of the region had kept the whites alive.
The Pilgrim crop had failed miserably that year, but the agricultural expertise of the Indians had produced twenty acres of corn, without which the Pilgrims would have surely perished. The Indians often brought food to the Pilgrims, who came from England ridiculously unprepared to survive and hence relied almost exclusively on handouts from the overly generous Indians–thus making the Pilgrims the western hemisphere’s first welfare recipients.
The fact that the hospitality, the sense of community and inter-humanity is what kept the whites alive is lost in the stories we learn in the U.S. education system. So, too, is the savagery of the Pilgrims. As Apitda notes, “Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder.”
What is also conveniently left out of our mainstream history is the fact that in the years following that unhappy meal, the majority of indigenous peoples in the area were either murdered firsthand or secondhand (via diseases of white folks). As Eric Vieth of Dangerous Intersection reminds us,
Hepatitis, smallpox, chickenpox and influenza killed between 90 percent and 96 percent of the native Americans living in coastal New England.
This brings me to another myth–that Pilgrims and Puritans were God-worshipping people who merely sought religious freedom (rather than power, land and wealth). In fact, as Mitchel Cohen points out, these “settlers” used their religion to justify the persecution, enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples.
Speaking of persecution and murder brings me to the second First Thanksgiving–the one in 1637 that occurred near the Mystic River and involved the slaughter of at least 700 Pequot Indians. This is the real First Thanksgiving–the one so-named by the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As Mitchel Cohen relates (emphasis mine):
Thanksgiving, in reality, was the beginning of the longest war in the U.S.– the extermination of the Indigenous peoples. Thanksgiving day was first proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, not to offer thanks for the Indians saving the Pilgrims that’s yet another re-write of the actual history but to commemorate the massacre of 700 indigenous men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance in their own house.
Gathered at this place, they were attacked by mercenaries, English and Dutch. The Pequots were ordered from the building and as they came forth they were killed with guns, swords, cannons and torches. The rest were burned alive in the building. The very next day the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to ‘give thanks’ for the massacre. For the next 100 years a governor would ordain a day to honor a bloody victory, thanking god the ‘battle’ had been won.
Want to read more about this? See Where White Men Fear To Tread by Russell Means and Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, by R. Drinnon, 1990.
There was no turkey, no happy exchange, no “sharing” between Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples at this Thanksgiving. Rather, Indigenous Peoples gave, Pilgrims took.
It is the sweetened 1621 version that President Lincoln harkened back to when declaring a national holiday. As Glen Ford notes,
Lincoln surveyed a broken nation and attempted nation-rebuilding, based on the purest white myth. The same year that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he renewed the national commitment to a white manifest destiny that began at Plymouth Rock.
This “white manifest destiny” is yet another piece of the imperial puzzle that we sweep under the rug. What goes unspoken in the historical renderings of this time is race; we are talking about not merely Pilgrims or Puritans but about whites, and a white supremacist ideology that sought to enslave and/or eradicate all peoples of color.
Tune in again tomorrow for Part 2 of the real story of Thanksgiving.
Photo of statue in Kansas City, Missouri of the Great Sachem Massasoit, sculpted Cyrus E. Dallin; public domain.
Story originally posted on Professor, What If?