By Melanie Reding, Associate Director, Adirondack Diversity Initiative
Like many contemporary holidays and celebrations, Thanksgiving has become a holiday where oversimplification, misrepresentation and myths tend to dominate the narrative. The history and significance of the day is often overshadowed by commercialism and merry-making. Holiday shopping and Black Friday sales, which increasingly begin on Thanksgiving Day, have become a distraction from the celebration of family and togetherness.
Furthermore, when it comes to Thanksgiving, there is a deep and tragic history that for centuries Americans have refused to accept — choosing instead to perpetuate a harmful myth. Unlike the depiction in the 1912 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, the relationship between the Wampanoag Tribe native to Massachusetts and the Pilgrims of that “First Thanksgiving” was anything but the school-taught myth of happy little Indians and Pilgrims sitting together enjoying a meal. In my school days, the lesson was taught with construction paper feathers, pilgrim hats and books where “I was for Indian” was accompanied by colorful images of smiling party guests.
For many of us with Native American ancestry (mine being Anishinaabe), Thanksgiving is at least complicated, if not impossible to celebrate in a traditional sense. Even though family and gratitude are deeply rooted in most tribal traditions, what makes the holiday most challenging is the often hidden or deliberately ignored historical reality of what followed for the Wampanoag as well as the eventual colonization, dispossession and slaughter of entire nations of people. I can’t ignore that.
When looking through the lens of all that Indigenous people have endured, it’s easy to understand why many look at Thanksgiving as a “Day of Mourning.” But also why others choose to celebrate the day as a reminder of their cultures’ survival. Even after all that has happened since 1621 — war, disease, colonization — Indigenous people are still here: the Haudenosaunee, the Abenaki, the Anishanabee, the Tolowa, the Akiak, the Coquille, and hundreds of other tribes. Even the Wampanoag are still here, still on their ancestral homelands, still practicing their traditions. I’d say that is something to celebrate, maybe just not under the current banner of Thanksgiving Day.
So how do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? It depends. Some ignore it completely, some protest, some powwow, some gather with friends and family and eat turkey and watch football, and some hit the malls. But I don’t know of anyone who tells the myth of the First Thanksgiving.
You can help rebuild a Thanksgiving that works for all. You can actively challenge the harmful and devastating myth that covers up the truth of our complicated and tragic history of the colonization of Indigeneous communities across what is now the United States. In gathering with friends and family, you can start a new tradition of taking time to remember that, no matter where you live in the United States, you are on Indigenous land, enjoying a dinner that likely includes Indigenous foods. You can educate yourself on the tribes in your area, their histories and traditions. You can support your neighbors and empower yourself by facing and understanding the truth behind the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday and the damage and pain this celebration causes to many.
If we begin to deconstruct how we celebrate this day, we can rebuild it into something better — something real and genuine and healing. We can take the best of the day — the family, friends, food and gratitude — and move forward, creating a celebration for which we can ALL be thankful.
To learn more about the origins of Thanksgiving Day and the wide range of Native American perspectives on the holiday, please visit these resources:
Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?, Smithsonian Magazine
The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell is a Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday, Time Magazine
Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving, National Museum of the American Indian
Please read the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, which is recited by Native communities throughout the year, not specifically for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Photo: An Ojibwe exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of the Native American features members of the author’s family.
Melanie Reding is Associate Director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, a program of ANCA. This was originally published on ANCA’s website. Reprinted with permission.
Nope. I am not going to ‘deconstruct’ my Thanksgiving Day and look back hundreds of years to ‘feel badly” or teach my children to take on a false sense of guilt for something we had no part of, which is NOT a denial of the past, but choosing to live in the present. Thanksgiving in my home will continue to be a day to gather together with friends and family as a joyous time of celebration for the blessings we share in a country we love- in ALL it’s past, both good and bad. (the good FAR outweighiing the bad)
If anyone can find or write about a country, tribe, race or people group in this world that has zero sins or something that is not shameful in their history, please do, so we can all honor and take a bow at their feet!
The truth is, there isn’t any- no one people group, race or country on this earth in all of world history, (not even the Indigenous people), can dare to claim to be 100% innocent of murder, theft or other hideous crimes within their own country, race and even amongst other tribes and also proclaim to have lived a perfect past towards their fellow man. Not one.
Therefore, sorry, but I will not ‘rebuild’ my Thanksgiving, but continue with the tradtion of enjoying the one day a year set aside to be intentionally grateful to God for the blessings of ‘today’, which are far are too many to count. Yesteryear is no more – and if anyone truly wants to be happy, they will never find it by reciting the grievenances of the past, or taking on the burden of a former injustice that cannot be appeased without also giving forgiveness- thus, ending the offense. At some time, wrongs have to be released in order to embrace the future because scabs that gets picked continually, never heal. And at some point, we have to choose our own healing as a society or we will just continue to pass down strife, grievances and condemnation, generation to generation which can only lead to perpetual misery, victimhood and hopelessness.
How about a new day to celebrate called “Letting Others Off the Hook Day” or “Release Your Offenders, Past & Peresent Day” ? Nothing would be more freeing to ALL people and bring peace like a day of both giving / receiving forgiveness, as a community, because frankly, articles like this, I dont see anything positive or good coming from it long term without also offering a pathway of hope and reconciliation.
Incredibly well said ADKresident. I agree 100%. I celebrate the blessings of our wonderful country and thank God that I’m an American. Like I tell my grandchildren, we hit the lottery on that issue.
BTW, attached are the Thanksgiving Day proclamations of both President Washington and President Lincoln, the latter of which made Thanksgiving a national holiday. No disrespect intended, but neither one mentions Indigenous people.
ADKresident & JohnL,
While I can certainly appreciate that indigenous peoples would have a different take on many European Americans’ holidays and associated myths, I also agree with and support your views on this subject.
I personally don’t believe most Americans believe and embrace the harmony and altruism highlighted in our traditional “Thanksgiving myth”. I don’t now that they ever did. What we do embrace, along with our neighbors to the north, is simply a feeling of Thanksgiving. Giving thanks for what we have TODAY, and not indigenous/colonist politics and grief/guilt for how we acted and as importantly, how European diseases decimated indigenous populations. This does NOT mean we do not recognize our errors and complicity, but I believe the holiday for most of us is much simpler than that – sitting down and giving thanks with the most important people in our lives. I have no guilt about that.
Now if we want to address our history of enslavement, indigenous slaughter and persecution, and most significantly decimation of two continents by European diseases, I don’t have a problem with that. IMO, this is what needs to be taught in public schools and not Thanksgiving myths and annual plays in grade school. Perhaps downplay the “noble savage” myths along with “manifest destiny” and conquest until students are old enough to grasp the nuance and ugly politics of European history in the New World.
But humans around the world celebrate “thanksgiving” when they feel especially thankful – regardless of the day of the year or the country they live in. Human nature. Some give thanks daily, others make a special day of it. Respectfully, I don’t feel we should necessarily “rework” a holiday where most of us simply give thanks, but I can get behind downplaying the myths and misconceptions in ingrained in our educational system.
Wonderful and accurate comments by ADKresident. I agree 100% with everything stated, and NO and NO to ‘rebuilding thanksgiving’. We are fed up with the woke society and the contrived narratives about the past! Bad timing and really bad judgment for Adirondack Almanac to print something like this on the day before America’s Thanksgiving holiday.
Blaming people today and making them responsible for things that happened hundreds of years ago is crazy, unfair, and nasty. The only reason this kind of thing is going on now in our society is because certain groups have self-serving agendas that want to create privilege in any form they can get it, and re-writing history (known as ‘revisionist history’) is their best attempt at getting that privilege. It is unfair and should not be tolerated or perpetuated with articles like this.
Thank you adkresident, nobody is without sin. Lets just erase everything, oh my god what is next!
Great article Melanie, thank you! Your perspective and the further reading are very helpful :). Hope all is well!! – Vanessa
Well said! This is just another attempt at bringing more “woke” ideology into the North County . I have native Americans in my family and live part time in the same town as the Narragansett nation in RI and none of them have ever claimed Thanksgiving to be a somber holiday. Please STOP printing articles like this or I for one will not continue to read or support the Adk almanac.
K B well said!
Thank you, Melanie, for reminding us of the facts behind the fables and providing constructive ways to address the past going forward.
Melanie’s post (thank you) reminds that we are a very young country still not fully awake. There is a awful lot of karmic debt to pay back, not just on Thanksgiving but around the year. One way to pay back is to respect our elders on Thanksgiving and year round, whatever they may look like, of whatever background or color they may take, including first peoples, Indian Nation. Indian Nation has survived, is here, everywhere, teaching us to pay attention, take notice, and respond to what is fundamentally important and without which we all perish: our life support systems, which are in deep trouble and require healing, and that includes strengthening our feelings of mutual respect, and broadening our sense of ethics, community, inclusion and a community’s true development. That is not WOKE. That is becoming awake.
I thought that thanksgiving was about watching football (American football) and hopefully seeing the Giants beat the Cowboys tomorrow!
Everybody have a great holiday!
In its essence,Melanie’s article contains a worthy challenge:
“If we begin to deconstruct how we celebrate this day, we can rebuild it into something better — something real and genuine and healing. We can take the best of the day — the family, friends, food and gratitude — and move forward, creating a celebration for which we can ALL be thankful.”
ADKresident adds an equally astute observation; that to free ALL people to achieve peace, by giving and receiving forgiveness, in the long term, we must offer “a pathway of hope and reconciliation”.
There is much worthy of consideration for all of us to ponder as we head into our own Thanksgiving holiday traditions. In my case, that pathway of hope and reconciliation will be remembered through our 1950s style delicious Thanksgiving dinners, and the gatherings of seldom seen relatives, who would retell old family stories of my great grandmother and her sister who married former soldiers who had fought on opposite sides in our Civil War, and yet were able to keep their close family relationships to the end. It was a lesson in reconciliation and tolerance for me…
Happy Thanksgiving everybody!
Thought provoking article, thank you. I hope that schools today aren’t promoting the “Thanksgiving Myth” anymore.
We have many things to be thankful for in this country without having to make up fairy tales.
Please Almanack, enough of the woke BS which tries to destroy most of our great traditions. So sick of it.
Some toxic responses here to an article that can hardly be thought of as offensive unless it hit a sensitive nerve challenging some sense of entitlement.
All cultures consider themselves on God’s home team.
Just to put the general topic in perspective (regardless about how one feels about Thanksgiving as a day of celebration) it’s estimated that “between 1492 and 1600, 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas had died. That means about 55 million people perished because of violence and never-before-seen pathogens like smallpox, measles, and influenza. “.
I believe we can do both – celebrate community while also being thoughtful about history as well as how to support the peoples of our planet and the crisis that we face.
Trying to blame people today and make them responsible for things that happened hundreds of years ago is crazy, unfair, and nasty. The only reason this kind of thing is going on now in our society is because certain groups have self-serving agendas that want to create privilege in any form that they can get it, and re-writing history (known as ‘revisionist history’) is their best attempt at getting that privilege. It’s unfair and should not be tolerated.
First of all, I agree totally with ADKresident. Well said! Secondly, I am sure that when the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower, they were not thinking “Let’s go kill us some Indians by spreading diseases!” They were all too busy trying to stay alive themselves, a noble goal. Thirdly, as to the purported “myth”, let’s get facts straight. Edward Winslow, of the Pilgrim group, left us a first hand account of the “First Thanksgiving” in which he speaks of the past season’s planting and harvesting, with help from the native tribe, and of the harvest feast where the natives came and went over 3 days to share with the Pilgrims the fruits of their labors. He spoke of game that the natives brought to the feast and the fact that their numbers exceeded 90 total that came and shared, and how the women made all sorts of dishes to share with their native guests. So before you start sharing your myths, I suggest you get your facts straight.
Thanks Susan. Very well said yourself. Hope you (and everyone) had a great Thanksgiving. We (Americans particularly) have a LOT to be thankful for. And proud of, I might add.
Again, this article employs a far too narrow view of Thanksgiving in the obvious effort to virtue signal and shame a division of people I cannot even attempt to identify and more likely than not doesn’t even exist.
The roots of American Thanksgiving predate any foreign settlements in the New World. In addition our modern Thanksgiving as proclaimed by President Lincoln in 1863 had everything to do with the trials of the Civil War and nothing to do with the authors’ cherry picked choice of leveraging a children’s fairy tale.
I am fairly certain that the author and the editors of this forum would gladly accept and promote an article denigrating Christmas and lynching Santa Clause using whatever lop sided narrative they envision will further their need to divide and destroy.