The Problem With Today’s Thanksgiving Narrative

A cornucopia with various fruits, squashes, and leaves on a table. Squashes and cornucopias are “traditional” Thanksgiving staples. Photo by Jill Wellington.

As Americans, we associate Thanksgiving with the story of the Pilgrims and Natives Americans. It’s the narrative we’ve been told year after year. The Wampanoag tribe and Squanto saw the Pilgrims starving and gave them supplies to survive, and they had this wonderful feast. A happy ending for all. But what this narrative fails to include is the utter devastation the European colonizers inflicted upon the different Native tribes afterwards. They stole and butchered the land, killed their cultures, and started massacre after brutal massacre. The colonizers’ greed never stopped. To continue to celebrate this holiday with the idea of peace between the Natives and colonizers is disgraceful and unethical.

Narrative means everything when it comes to how we look at history. What is said and unsaid is vital to who we think are the “good and bad guys.” Take the “First Thanksgiving.” That story of the feast is what we consider to be the first, right? It could be, but in fact that event was never officially called a Thanksgiving. But you know what was? According to one of Time magazine’s articles, “The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is A Harmful Lie”, the first time the celebration of a “Thanksgiving” was mentioned was in 1637, when a group of colonists murdered a Pequot village and celebrated their victory. So why isn’t this considered the first Thanksgiving? It was the first to be officially called one after all. It’s because white Americans control the narrative, and god forbid they be seen as the violent bullies they’ve continuously been in history. But alright, we’ll take the bait, that Pequot massacre never happened and so that makes the first Thanksgiving the Pilgrim feast. 

Nope. There’s another event that actually mentions a “Thanksgiving” that is also barely known about. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announced the nation would celebrate a “Thanksgiving holiday” in honor of the significant Union army win at Gettysburg, and also in hopes of lifting spirits given the wartime. This moment doesn’t have anything to do with the Native and Pilgrim feast and officially mentions a “Thanksgiving.” So why isn’t this what we associate with the holiday? Why do we choose to retell the romanticized version of the colonizer’s relationship with the Natives? It again comes down to who controls the narrative, and how they do so. The feast story is told in order to hide the actual tragedies this country was built on, in hopes of keeping the American dream untainted.

In my research, I ended up interviewing Greg Garcia, one of Franklin’s AP U.S History teachers, to clarify some of the events and hear what he had to say on the matter. We started talking about narrative, and how it’s important to understand where a historian is starting and ending theirs. He had this to say on the topic: “There is a lot of power in narrative and narrative construction…just like how you could choose to include the detail that after the first Thanksgiving pretty much the entire indigenous population involved was destroyed. You cut that detail out, you stop the story before it happens, it completely changes the story.” To try and erase the damage caused to the Native people, silence their perspectives and ignore the true history, is continuing to add to the excluding narrative. Not hearing this side of the story hurts indigenous people by not acknowledging the pain they’ve gone through. These people have had to endure reminders of this past and its consequences, and the holiday season can be even harder on some. 

Not only is November the Thanksgiving season, it is also Native American Heritage Month, so if you’re wanting to help support Native folks, there’s many ways to do so. Researching indigenous tribes in your area, reading more in depth about the history of colonizers and Native tribes, donating to organizations, and purchasing art, food, and other goods made by indigenous people are all good ways. If you’re looking for more details or ways to support, Vice’s articles “How to Support Indigenous People On Thanksgiving” and “100 Ways to Support- Not Appropriate From- Native People” both propose great ways to help. 

If you’re going to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year, consider focusing on gratitude rather than history. There’s nothing wrong with having a day to look at what you’re thankful for, similar to what Lincoln initially proposed. Having days where you specifically set aside time to be with your loved ones is amazing, to just enjoy each other and some good food.

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