On November 24, the fourth Thursday of the month, millions of Americans will unite with their families to eat turkey, express gratitude, and watch football. Many will eat pie, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and most ubiquitously, a turkey; the typical menu consists of foods originating from both Europe and Native America. The meal honors a feast shared by the allied Pilgrims and Wampanoag in November 1621, after the latter had fed and sheltered the European settlers. Now known as Thanksgiving, the present-day celebration of the event has erased the violence European colonizers brought upon the Wampanoags and Native Americans as a whole.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, Wampanoag chief Ousamequin proposed an entente to protect his people from the Narragansetts, with whom the Wampanoags were rivals. Other British explorers had enslaved and brought disease to the Wampanoags in the past, leading many Wampanoags to disagree and resist Ousamequin’s decision to ally with the British. In the subsequent fifty years after the entente’s establishment, the British gradually destroyed the relationship by colonizing more and more land, spreading diseases that ravaged local indigenous populations, and exploiting Wampanoag resources. After half a century of rising tension, King Philip’s War, one of the bloodiest wars per capita in America history, broke out in 1675, and the British devastated the Wampanoag resistance, people, and land.
Yet, despite the gruesome colonialist history surrounding Thanksgiving, we celebrate the holiday annually under the myth – a myth that is taught in schools across the nation – that the Pilgrims and Wampanoag were friendly neighbors. Thanksgiving portrays the Columbian Exchange as mutually beneficial for Indigenous and European people, when realistically, colonizers massacred, infected with diseases, and stole the lands of millions of Native Americans. The myth of Thanksgiving absolves white invaders of their crimes and acts as though Indigenous people conceded to colonialism in 1621, which erases their presence in American society today. On Thanksgiving in 1970, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and supporters of the American Indian Movement protested the glorification of the holiday and oppression of Native American people overall on Plymouth Plantation. The protesters declared the fourth Thursday of November a “National Day of Mourning” for grieving and fasting, a holiday which has continued to be recognized and honored 52 years later. Since 1970, an annual protest on the National Day of Mourning has taken place at Plymouth Plantation.
For this Thanksgiving and all to come, it is important to acknowledge the racist narratives the holiday perpetuates. You can enjoy family time and food and simultaneously be conscious that for many, the fourth Thursday of November is not a time to celebrate Thanksgiving but to grieve on the National Day of Mourning. Ways to support Native Americans on Thanksgiving and every day include learning whose land you occupy, donating to Indigenous organizations, participating in protests (perhaps the one at Plymouth Plantation), studying an honest history of America, and actively seeking out Native voices.