Rarely I hear people acknowledge the first “Thanksgiving” as a day the Puritans celebrated having survived their first winter in the “New World” in 1621, plundering and pillaging from the Wampanoag people for their food. The Plymouth colony had built a wall around their settlement to keep Indigenous people out and needless to say, that first unofficial “Thanksgiving” excluded Narragansett, Pequot and Wampanoag tribes. In fact, “Thanksgiving” had its first semi-official day of feast in celebration for the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women, and children in where is now known as Mystic, Connecticut, in 1637. Afterward, year by year all of the colonies (13) would make this celebration an annual event. In 1789, President George Washington proclaimed it, 'National Day of Thanksgiving' and finally, in 1863, President Lincoln (by way of Sarah Josepha Hale) declared it a national holiday.
What is acknowledged is a patriotic myth of brave Christians, courageously paving a new life for themselves and peacefully feasting with “the Native people” (quite often the names of the tribes who came into contact with the first colonizers are not mentioned). Ultimately celebrating such a whitewashed fable has led to stereotyping east coast tribes to look like Plains Natives with headdresses and culturally appropriating Native regalia as costumes for kids to wear in school plays.
To be sure, the core of Indigenous belief is to give thanks to Mother Earth for everything she has offered us to thrive and so “Thanksgiving” celebrations were never new to us. However, after the arrival of colonizers, the genocide began. The complexity of this American celebration lay between two worlds. One of thankfulness we are still here and another to mourn the millions of our people taken, and everything with them. Some Natives prefer to put aside the trauma and pain of that history, to be with family and friends. Others outwardly protest and speak to bring more awareness of the true and agonizing history of “Thanksgiving” and still others, don’t acknowledge the day at all.
I do not believe in perpetuating a lie. I grew up not celebrating any holiday, unwise to the histories of them, until I became older and more curious about my Indigenous heritage. In the past, I have celebrated a few “Thanksgivings” with either friends or family (in my 45 years, this has happened approximately 5 times). Now I simply do not celebrate it. I chose to mourn, in a good way of course, and to give thanks to Mother Earth.
This Thursday, I choose to acknowledge this month for what it is, Native American Heritage Month and I choose to acknowledge Black Friday as National Native American Heritage Day. So we can all educate ourselves to this history, we can also become better people for it too and I do believe there is hope in collective healing. Will you also please acknowledge this Thursday and Friday with me?
Photo by Hishu Wea McGrady