Every child raised in the American school system learns some variation of the story of the first Thanksgiving. While most Americans do not know the exact details of the story, they understand the gist of the tale — the natives helping out the hungry Pilgrims. While not necessarily untrue, the situation is more nuanced than what we learn in school.
The tale goes that after initial difficulty with farming, the Pilgrims received help from the local Wampanoag people, learning how to grow corn and use fish to create fertilizer. In March 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag formed an alliance of mutual defense against other native tribes. In the fall of that year, the Pilgrims invited their Wampanoag allies to join in their harvest feast.
For three days the men, women and children of both groups enjoyed food, games and other festivities. Although the first recorded religious Thanksgiving Day was celebrated two years later, this first Thanksgiving is the one that remains in the popular imagination of the average American. Unfortunately, this spirit of friendship between vastly different peoples did not last and the Wampanoag were pushed further and further from their lands by the ever-expanding English colony, leading to one of the bloodiest colonial wars in North American history, King Philip’s War.
I am not sure when precisely I learned of the ultimate fate of the Wampanoag, but it must have been only a few years after I first learned the story of Thanksgiving because I have always closely associated the betrayal of native peoples with the historical Thanksgiving.
For many, the betrayal of the Wampanoag, and even their name, is relatively unknown, and while my education had more of a focus on native peoples, I know that is generally not the norm. In popular American mythology, “the Indians” simply disappear, but in reality, they were driven out through a combination of disease and colonial expansion. In an effort to push deeper into the North American interior, successive generations of Americans took to the “frontier,” invariably pushing out the people who lived there through a combination of broken treaties and bloody conflict.
Even though the spirit of the first Thanksgiving was betrayed along with the Wampanoag, I still think there is meaning and value to a tale of cooperation and solidarity being a part of our country’s founding story. Of course, it is important to be mindful that we do not whitewash the historic crimes against native peoples, rather we should instead seek to emulate the kindness they showed to the Pilgrims.
Coming from a large extended family, Thanksgiving has, to me, always been a time to catch up with family not seen since at least Easter. For others, catching up with family can be difficult, particularly in an increasingly politically polarized country. For some, the family they spend Thanksgiving with is not their family of birth, but their family of choice, including friends, roommates and co-workers. Thanksgiving is a time for people of all walks of life to come together, enjoy a meal and spend time together.
Despite its semireligious origins, Thanksgiving is a broadly secular holiday. Before we ate, my grandfather would say a prayer, but other than that, the day was more or less devoid of any religious significance. As the country grows increasingly religiously diverse, and in some corners increasingly areligious, I think it is important that we all share a few secular holidays that can bring people of all and no faiths together.
There is this urge, particularly on the left, to reject holidays that have a problematic past. While sometimes this is good, as with Columbus Day, I do not believe that Thanksgiving is deserving of the same ire. Columbus on the other hand was a genocidal maniac — so ruthless that the king and queen of Spain, driving forces behind the Spanish Inquisition, considered him too cruel. Rather than reject Thanksgiving, we should take a portion of the day to learn about the peoples whose land we each live upon.
Many Indigenous Americans observe Thanksgiving not as a day of celebration, but rather as a day of mourning. Out of respect for that tradition, this Thanksgiving I’ll be taking some time to learn about the history of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, as I’ll be spending the holiday on their ancestral lands — northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. You can find out more about the peoples’ lands you live on here.
Nick Finan is a junior political science major. Reach him at email@example.com.