Growing up in the US, thanksgiving is a big event from a very young age. The significance was not lost on me from a young age: the time off from school, family coming into town from all over, a big dinner with lots of preparation involved. The excitement at home was accompanied by an explanation of the tradition at school, or from storybooks for young children. The standard history of thanksgiving is an inexcusably white-washed, oversimplification of a historic relationship between colonists and the Native Americans.
When the pilgrims, Calvinists who sought religious freedom from the Anglican Church, came to America in the early seventeenth century, settlers in Plymouth Massachusetts experienced a severe winter. They had settled an area of Massachusetts left abandoned by the Patuxet who were wiped out by a plague. Only fifty of a hundred settlers survived the winter, and the remaining pilgrims were struggling to survive. They were introduced to the last remaining Patuxet named Squanto, who spoke English and survived the plague that wiped out his people, due to having been enslaved in Europe. Squanto and Samoset (the first to encounter the starving pilgrims) took pity on the pilgrims and taught them how to catch eel and grow corn in the harsh climate. Squanto died of plague a year later. Nearby the Wampanoag leader Massasoit also gave supplies to the pilgrims who did not have enough supplies. The feast itself took place in the fall of 1621, when the pilgrims, having survived the winter through the help of the Native Americans, took in their first harvest. There were 90 natives and 50 pilgrims present.
While most of these facts are presented in the storybooks we are given as children, there is a slant to the story that presents a relationship of equals. This could not be further from the truth. The pilgrims, and later their descendants, along with the United States itself, persecuted the Native Americans, driving them out of their own land, impeding on their trust, and at the height of the Trail of Tears in the 1820s essentially committing a genocide on the native population. The narrative created by the wealth of history presented to children and more generally the American population, is one of two communities setting aside their differences to break bread. What this skates over is the turbulent relationship that the pilgrims and the Native Americans had. This is such an ignorant view of this dynamic, to the point that Disney’s wild retelling of the story of Pocahontas was more successful in capturing this dynamic.
The problem is, many Americans are ignorant of the depth of injustices committed against the natives of the country. The history of inequity and persecution goes back farther than that of our country’s establishment. It is disingenuous of us to celebrate a relationship that does not exist. Yes, the Wampanoag, Samoset and Squanto helped the pilgrims of Plymouth to survive the winter and in return the pilgrims invited them to a harvest festival, but this was not a foundation to a peaceful relationship of reciprocal trust and respect, as many storybooks suggest. There is a reason that, while Native Americans were so prominent in 1620, they were able to help the pilgrims, or even found their settlement on the abandoned site of the Patuxet. Meanwhile today, the native community of the US is small, persecuted, disenfranchised, and contained within small areas of the country. The traces of a vibrant and vast array of communities that spread across what is now the continental US are still visible in the names of towns, or by the discovery of arrowheads in the woods, or geographical markers with a cultural significance lost to history. The problem is, when we celebrate this historic occasion every year we gloss over the fate of the native community, while commemorating a relational dynamic that, if it existed, was extremely short-lived, before giving in to slaughter.