On this day in history, or somewhere near it, a group of Native Americans shared their food and food growing and gathering expertise with a group of European newcomers who were having trouble adjusting to the rigors of their new homes. In the story told in the history books, the Native Americans were generous, the Pilgrims were grateful, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But of course that isn’t quite what happened.
The first thing to notice is that the Native American side is absent from the story. Which is probably a huge part of the reason why the after-effects of that historic meal are also left out.
For many indigenous Americans, “Thanksgiving [is considered] the beginning of the end of life as the native peoples had known it before the arrival of the pilgrims, who began to lay claim to more and more land.” Displacement, smallpox, and massacres became ever more common as the newcomers plowed westward, clearing existing residents and claiming land as they went.
These days Thanksgiving-based oppression is subtler.
The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture.
Dennis Zotigh, writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
This year, as we give thanks for our turkeys, cranberry relish, and sweet potatoes, let us pause for a moment, or more than a moment to remember the Native Americans who gave those early Pilgrims so much, and in doing so, lost so much more.
Learn more about the true story of Thanksgiving, the results of centuries of oppression, and the National Day of Mourning.