How To Approach Thanksgiving Without a False Narrative

I’ve been seeing a ton of these adorable little activities popping up right on schedule for this time of year. Pilgrims and Indians and all kinds of versions of “Little House on the Prairie” are up for sale by different creators.

And for the first time ever, I’m cringing every time I see it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Thanksgiving. I’ve just learned to look beyond the pilgrim story. That’s not really the story I want to teach my kids.

I love eating huge amounts of everything drenched in cranberry sauce and green bean casserole. And cranberry sauce with my green bean casserole. And my green bean casserole with the turkey. It’s just a lawless mess of fine cuisine on my Thanksgiving plate.

I am filled with purpose, spending the month making sure I’ve told people why I’m grateful for them. I adore hearing children list things they are grateful for (big trucks, Wal-Mart, and our dog are at the top of my two year old’s list).

And we can’t forget pumpkin and cinnamon flavored everything. (Currently, we are burning an apple- pumpkin scent in our kitchen that is my new favorite. It’s heavenly.)

Photo by Rob Fallows from FreeImages

So, what’s so cringeworthy about Thanksgiving?

I don’t think anyone has a real reason to be upset about the things listed just above. And for most people, that’s all they think about at Thanksgiving – fooood, glorious food! Alone, the Hallmarkization of Thanksgiving is lovely.

But the problem, of course, is the origins of the holiday and the fact that some people STILL are telling their children that we celebrate Thanksgiving to remember how the pilgrims and Native Americans came together on that day so long ago to feast and live happily ever after together.

Sean Sherman says in a New York Times article:

 The first official mention of a “Thanksgiving” celebration occurs in 1637, after the colonists brutally massacre an entire Pequot village, then subsequently celebrate their barbaric victory. 

The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday

And you know, I read that article a while ago, but as soon as I copied that into this post I thought but wait, wasn’t the whole Thanksgiving story that they hunted and feasted TOGETHER, and the pilgrims survived because of Squanto (and others’) help? What massacre is he talking about? I mean, I know they had a dark history, which is a problem, but how closely did these two events happen? So I spent the past 40 minutes on the internet trying to search for an explanation. gives us a whole three paragraphs, confirming that a massacre of “some 500 Indian women, men, and children” did happen just a few *months* before that first Thanksgiving story, followed by more such massacres. The Peqout Wars were a huge stain in American history I’d never even heard of, and it doesn’t seem to be especially well recorded. And these wars were going on right alongside this particular harvest and Thanksgiving, like Sherman said.

But, of course, the tribe being massacred was not the same tribe at the thanksgiving feast. The tribe at the feast was the Wampanoag, and they may have been there in an attempt at politics having seen what other tribes were experiencing.

The Smithsonian Magazine paints another short (a whole 8 paragraphs) picture of the Wampanoag situation leading up to the thanksgiving:

Long before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag held frequent Thanksgiving-like celebrations, giving thanks in the form of feasts and ceremonial games…

For a moment of history, the interests of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag aligned. When the Pilgrims landed in New England, after failing to make their way to the milder mouth of the Hudson, they had little food and no knowledge of the new land. The Wampanoag suggested a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the Pilgrims would exchange European weaponry for Wampanoag for food.

Everyone’s history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known

So this Thanksgiving may not have really been as big of a deal as we make it. In fact, it certainly wasn’t. really comes in next with the Thanksgiving fun gun, breaking down the facts of what we actually have evidence of from the “first Thanksgiving”, like:

  • As mentioned above, “thanksgivings” were common practice, and we don’t have any clue why this one is remembered as “THE first Thanksgiving”
  • We can’t actually prove that the Wampanoag people were invited at all. It may have been unplanned for the Native Americans to join in the festivities.
  • Was there Turkey? There’s no written record of it.
  • It’s possible that New Englanders were just trying to make themselves look good after the fact by talking up this feast.

But this wasn’t the beginning of a fluffy new friendship. It was again “just a moment in history.” Even when the settlers and Native Americans weren’t at war, the diseases brought from Europe were still wiping out whole peoples.

When Europeans started trekking through Indian towns, they brought sickness with them. Indians died at an alarming rate, making it substantially easier for colonists to overpower entire villages—well, what was left of them. 

The Pilgrims already believed they were part of God’s plan. Finding empty villages as 90 percent—yes, 90 percent—of America’s Indians perished in front of them only furthered Europeans’ sense of their destiny, influencing them to continue the colonization westward.

Everyone’s history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known

And with continued colonization came continued wars and conflicts. The conflicts evolved in nature with time, but still they persisted. Through the Civil War when many tribes took sides to fight, and the life-saving Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, clear until 1953, Native Americans struggled to protect land, resources and culture. But a survey in 1943 led to a decision by the U.S. government to terminate a huge number of Native American tribes, expecting them to relinquish their tribal lands and affiliation. For many, this meant being removed from the land and put into “boarding schools”.

According to a Partnership With Native Americans:

From 1953-1964 109 tribes were terminated and federal responsibility and jurisdiction were turned over to state governments. Approximately 2,500,000 acres of trust land was removed from protected status and 12,000 Native Americans lost tribal affiliation. The lands were sold to non-Indians the tribes lost official recognition by the U.S. government.


How do we change the narrative when the history of a holiday…well, sucks?

I’m gonna go back to Sean Sherman for this one. He says:

The thing is, we do not need the poisonous “pilgrims and Indians” narrative. We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk and think about anyway: the food.

People may not realize it, but what every person in this country shares, and the very history of this nation, has been in front of us the whole time. Most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice and the like. We should embrace this.

The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday

That, Sean Sherman, I can do. I can embrace the food.

Photo by bromundt from FreeImages

For example, succotash. If I say “succotash” what’s the first thing you think of?

Sylvester, right?

Image result for succotash meme

I just learned that it is actually a Native American dish made of corn, lima beans, and a variety of any other vegetables laying around! And I can totally get on board with that kind of recipe. So maybe instead of painting false pictures of peaceful historical relations, we can instead bond with our children in the kitchen making succotash. Talk about how maize is grown and what it must have been like to live off the land. Educate them (and yourself) about rain dances and drought and how these things made Native Americans into more prayerful, thankful, and resourceful people. Talk about protecting people’s homes and rights and not letting history repeat itself. There’s no place like a feast to get in a big, long conversation like that anyway!

Click below for one succotash recipe from All Recipes with a more modern twist, and let me know if you try it!

To learn more about Three Sisters Planting by Indigenous peoples, and celebrate a more diversely aware thanksgiving, check out this Thanksgivings Around the World activity download!

November Multicultural Holidays

This month let’s dive into Argentina’s El Dia de la Tradicion, Chuseok, and Thanksgivings around the world! We’ll learn about the gauchos of Argentina and their trusty steeds, acknowledging that the cowboys of the USA’s “Wild West” are not the original or singular cowboy in the world. Then we can jump on over to India for the beautiful festival of lights celebration, Diwali, with beautiful colors, food, and light activities. Finally, gear up for a world tour of Thanksgiving food, games, harvest and family under the full moon!


2 thoughts on “How To Approach Thanksgiving Without a False Narrative

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