For me, a few of the first things I think about when I hear the word Thanksgiving are pumpkin spice and fall colors (but not falling leaves). Perhaps this is because I have lived most of my life in Malaysia and I never really celebrated the holiday, or maybe it’s because no one really thinks about what we’re celebrating. In American pre-school, we made turkey hands and pilgrim hats, but never learned what Thanksgiving meant. We went around the room sharing what we were thankful for and that was that. Unless you’re thankful for murder and stealing land, you’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving wrong. Let me break it down for you.
Courtesy of Giphy
What Actually Happened
The Thanksgiving origin story you know probably goes something like this: The Puritans fled religious persecution and landed on Plymouth rock, took some land, maybe killed some people, and America was born. That’s a grossly oversimplified version. Here’s what really happened.
The Puritans left Holland, according to YouTuber Ben Shapiro, to push for “the glory of God in advancement of the Christian Faith.” After the first winter, half the new settlers died because they didn’t understand how to grow crops. According to the Huffington Post, this is when Tisquantum, better known as Squanto came around. He was a Christian, Native American boy who was captured and sent to England for training as a guide. He came back to America with John Smith.
In 1614, one of Smith’s Englishmen named Thomas Hunt kidnapped Tisquantum and about thirty more Wampanoag from the village Patuxet. He took them to Spain and tried to sell them into slavery. Somehow, Tisquantum escaped and made it to England and eventually managed to come back to what is now known as Massachusetts in 1619. In the five years that Tisquantum was in Europe, New England was dominated by an epidemic. French sailors carried “some disease and it wiped out a huge percentage of the population in coastal new England;” Tisquantum was the village’s only survivor. Since there was no one left in Patuxet, the Europeans were able to settle the land. Patuxet became Plymouth.
A local Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, didn’t trust Tisquantum. Massasoit wanted to set up a trading system with the English. That way, a neighboring group, the Narragansett, who weren’t affected by the disease at all, wouldn’t be able to attack the Wampanoag. Tisquantum ended up betraying Massasoit, “pit the Pilgrims against him,” and helped the English prepare for the next winter.
Courtesy of Giphy
Where Did the Name “Thanksgiving” Come From?
According to another article by the Huffington Post, the first Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in 1637, as proclaimed by John Winthrop, to celebrate the “safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers,” after killing over seven hundred Pequot Indians.
Let’s look at a different narrative, this time from what we now call Brooklyn. A group called the Canarsees accepted a small trinket in return for their land. Since borders were not part of their culture, it was common for there to be exchanges of small items by a “tribe seeking temporary admission.” The Canarsees were unaware the the Dutch were actually here to stay. Settlers in Brooklyn and in Plymouth were oblivious to the practices of farming and soon starved, thus the Day of Fasting was created. Soon the Day became weeks. “Thanksgiving” was what they called the ability to eat again. There was no turkey dinner accompanied by a table full of food, but no matter what their feast was, the Pilgrims didn’t share anything with the Indians whom they stole their land from.
Courtesy of Cheyenne Tang
Columbus Day and Pocahontas
Thanksgiving isn’t the only example in which history class has failed us. Have you ever heard of the phrase “In 1942, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” For so long, children have been taught that Columbus discovered America (which he thought was India). The truth is that Columbus actually kidnapped Indians to bring back to Spain and he sparked the colonization of America. In 1943, according to PBS, he “rewarded his men with native women to rape.” When we celebrate Columbus day we are celebrating the genocide of a race, a race that Columbus didn’t even identify correctly. Recently, more cities, states, and universities have recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. We should be teaching children to question history, not to just accept it as the past.
A similar issue stands with the romanticized version of colonization through the Disney movie Pocahontas. In case you didn’t already know, Pocahontas was a real person with a real, and frankly grim, story. The Disney movie literally romanticizes her relationship with John, who in real life was a much older man, “old enough to be her father when she was a teenager.” There’s a whole song about Pocahontas changing out of her savage clothing into ladylike (aka Western) clothing. The movie itself raises many issues in its representation of the Native American culture, but Halloween raises more issues.
This Halloween, Sachi Feris said: “Moana is based on real history and a real group of people…if we are going to dress up a real person, we have to make sure we are doing it in a way that is respectful. Otherwise, it is like we are making fun of someone else’s culture.” The same goes for Pocahontas. Both Moana and Pocahontas are representations of real cultures so it can be inappropriate for people who are not of their cultures to dress in their clothing.
At the end of the day, there are countless examples of how certain cultures are misrepresented (or not represented at all) in society. It would be impossible to hash them all out and come to a conclusion about what is right or wrong. My only hope is that you take a few seconds this Thanksgiving holiday to think about what it really means and perhaps redefine how you celebrate.