Glorification and Oppression: The True Story of Thanksgiving


Halie Leland

Many of us are taught a fairytale of Thanksgiving. However, the truth isn’t so clear-cut.

What narrative did you grow up with around Thanksgiving? Did it go anything like this: The Mayflower braved the Altlantic waters to arrive on the shores of Massachusetts carrying “Pilgrims” who fearlessly started a life of their own free of tyranny. Then the poor, suffering Europeans of Plymouth Colony got help from the scary “Indians” whoever so shockingly—ended up being tame. And then all was right in the world and the “Pilgrims” joined “Squanto” and his “Indian” friends to feast together with smiles on their faces and bellies full, they exchanged stories. 

When I was younger, I never thought much more about it. If my elementary school proclaimed it in good decency to make “Indian headdresses” of cardstock and polyester feathers and reenact the first feast, who was I to question it?

The truth is, there’s a lot more to the story. Most of the beloved fairytale of Thanksgiving glorifies the Europeans involved and oppresses Native Americans and is barely a snippet of a much larger tale. While celebrating family and all of the things we have to be grateful for is wonderful, Thanksgiving runs deeper and is a chance to reflect on the historical suffering of Native American peoples. Despite what many of our Eurocentric teachings may tell us, the real story of Thanksgiving requires context and details. It doesn’t start with the Pilgrim’s arrival in 1620 or when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the “New World” in 1492. The real story starts centuries earlier; the “New World” was only new to some.  


“To bury the truth behind what Thanksgiving means to Native Americans does nothing but set us back as a country. It’s time this nation faces the facts about its actions, its crimes – the ones they’ve committed, and continue to commit.”

-Simon Moya-Smith, Lakota


While Europe staggered to have any prevalence in the world, an estimated 15-20 million Native Americans lived in abundance. Spread across the vast terrain of North America resided more than 2,000 tribes, each uniquely vibrant in language, customs, values and leaders. The land was shared and respected by the Cherokee, Cheyenne, Ute, Pawnee, Apache, Navajo, Sioux tribes and so many more. Societies thrived on respect for the Earth, cultivation, resourceful hunting, honor and faith. 

Then came the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French and Dutch colonizers to rip apart the very fabric of thousands of cultures in the name of glory. Between 1492 and 1600, approximately 90% of the native population was wiped out. Violence, exploitation and disease took the lives of 55 million Native Americans. The darkness of this widespread death is an aspect of Thanksgiving rarely discussed. Few people realize the famous friendly “Squanto” was the last survivor of the Patuxet tribe.

 Then for centuries, land and rights were stripped from whoever was left. Between 1776 and 1887, the US forcefully snatched 1.5 billion acres of native land from the hands of Native Americans. We moved the once free tribes onto reservations to continuously rob the identities of thousands. The United States of America was stolen from the beginning and the thieves’ justification: “civilization.”

 The idea that the Native American population of this land needed European intervention or that they themselves were inhuman is an idea that still impacts the lives of Native Americans today. Years of relentless persecution have marginalized the native tribes of a stolen country. Land, lives, identities — all taken. But what does this have to do with the Mayflower and our famously  poor “Pilgrims?” As sociologist Dr. James W. Loewen puts it, Plymouth was “A lovely place to settle. Why was it available? Because every single native person who had been living there was a corpse.” It’s easy to fight off ghosts. 

The “Pilgrims” came for freedom but not just in religious terms. In fact, they already had religious freedom as Separatists in the Dutch Republic. They had fled tyranny in England long before they came to North America. The unknown side of the story is they truly wanted money. They wanted something that was their own, nevermind if it already belonged to someone. The word “Pilgrim” itself implies a person journeying for religious freedom. These newly arrived settlers were not truly pilgrims; they were European Separatists who saw an opportunity and seized it. Additionally, these “Pilgrims” knew perfectly well what they would find on the other side of the Atlantic. They knew Native American populations had been weakened for years. They knew they could settle and they planned to do just that and more. If these Europeans hopefuls could slip into an already fractured “New World,” play nice, get some capital of their own and convert some natives along the way — why wouldn’t they?


“The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.”

Wamsutta Frank James, Wampanoag activist and organizer of the National Day of Mourning


With the “Pilgrims” now in North America, they did, in fact, suffer. With no knowledge of American crops and the harsh winter, their prospects of a better life dwindled. That much of the story is true. This next part, however, not so much. “Squanto the friendly Indian” has a longer history than most of us realize. The typical story involves a kind-hearted Native American translating between the Wampanoag tribe and the settlers and teaching the Europeans to grow corn, fish and gather. This is only a glimpse of the real events. Was he a communicator between the Native people and the Europeans, yes. But how did he know English? And why was he the messenger for a tribe he wasn’t a part of? The answers to those questions are less friendly. 

Tisquantum was a young member of the Patuxet tribe when he was captured, taken to Europe and sold as a slave. In his absence, his village was one of the many destroyed by European diseases. After escaping to England, he was sent back to the colonies as an interpreter. On the trade mission, the Wampanoag tribe recaptured Tisquantum and remained a prisoner in 1621 when the “Pilgrims” arrived. Tired of European conflict, the Wampanoag tribe negotiated an alliance with the settlers, using Tisquantum to do the work and nick-naming him “Squanto” along the way. “Squanto” proceeded to teach the “Pilgrims” proper cultivation and hunting and the Europeans did indeed host a feast. There is no evidence that the Native Americans were actually invited to the feast or what the settlers were actually celebrating. We do know that there was an alliance for at least a short period of time. Whatever peace there was, it didn’t last long.

It is important to recognize that there is no consensus of when the first actual Thanksgiving was. Some credit the first Thanksgiving to the celebration hosted in 1637 by the governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, on the day of the slaughtering of 700 Pequot peoples in Connecticut. Others date it much further back to feasts of the Spanish in the 1500s. Massacres on native populations in North America occurred over hundreds of years and after some, European settlers would celebrate and call their celebration “Thanksgiving.” Regardless of the true first Thanksgiving, the legacy of the holiday may be the most important aspect of the story.

“I can feel the sting of the mace, the whack of the club, the bite of the dog.”

-Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag


As more and more settlers flooded to the “new world,” the alliance between natives and Europeans in Plymouth strained to a breaking point. War broke out between the Wampanoag and the colonists, and it was bloody. Violence overwhelmed the land and an estimated 30% of New England’s European population was killed and at least twice as many Native Americans died. Massacre, capture and decimation in King Philip’s War overwhelmed the already weak tribes and paved the way for even more settlers to colonize North America. Colonial wars broke out elsewhere in North America as well and the peaceful image of togetherness at the Thanksgiving feast was no longer.

200 years later, President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War. His request to the country to “heal the nation’s wounds” through the celebration’s legitimization may be an indicator of his misunderstanding of how far spread the wounds were and still are. 

Under Lincoln’s presidency, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and the Homestead Act constructed railroads directly through native lands, harming sacred resources and native populations. Additionally, the Navajo Long Walk of 1864 forcibly moved 8,000 Navajo people 450 miles and killed 2,000 in the process. Lincoln discriminated against Native Americans and his role in the celebration of Thanksgiving must be remembered wholly.

Today, Native Americans in the United States remain widely disrespected and oppressed. Living on a fraction of their native lands, tribes today are fighting for land, resources, sovereignty and rights. According to the American Community Survey, the federal government regulates nearly every aspect of reservation resources and 1 in 3 Native Americans in the US today are living in poverty. As of 2009, 24.1% of Native Americans lack health insurance. There are 514% more deaths by alcoholism on reservations than in the general public of the US. Bigotry and blatant disrespect for native culture appear around us every day in cringeworthy stereotypes and an astonishingly small amount of people seem to care. From 2,000 thriving tribes living on billions of acres of native land to 565 federally recognized tribes living on a couple of hundred reservations, Native Americans are experiencing oppression every day.

The celebration of Thanksgiving comes to us in the midst of National Native American Heritage Month — a time to remember a long history of oppression. We can all be more conscious of our actions and how we think about history. Truth is hidden in society, so often that a new level of compassion can arise when we can see it and understand it. I am thankful for the Native Americans who fought so hard to keep their cultures alive today and I am thankful for their presence in this country. There is a lot of learning to do about America’s true history and all of us can start questioning the norms and happy narratives all around us. Thanksgiving is no fairytale and comes with heavy truths. And while this Thursday I will be celebrating my family and everything I am so thankful for, I will not be celebrating the story of Thanksgiving. I will remember the loss of Native American life throughout the history of this country and I will be honoring the cultures whose pain I know I will never fully understand. I hope you will be doing the same. Happy real Thanksgiving; celebrate it with compassion.

“For nearly 400 years they have tried to erase us from the land without realizing how impossible that is. We are the land, the land is us, and We Are Still Here.”

 – Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag