Thanksgiving Revisted

Raney Bench, Curator of Education

“Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy, or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained?”

--Michael Dorris Why I’m Not Thankful for Thanksgiving 1978

How many of us learned in school that Pilgrims settled in New England, had a rough time making a go of it, and were assisted in their cause by a friendly Native named Squanto? Or, alternatively, they found a pristine wilderness and in trying to learn how to survive, they found help by friendly Squanto. Either way, in gratitude for Squanto’s help, at the first harvest, the Pilgrims invited the Indians for a feast of thanks and friendship, the likes of which the Indians had never seen. If your school was like mine, you learned this while making “authentic” Pilgrim hats with silver buckles, or construction paper feather headdresses and reenacting the event in a play.

The real story, however, is a little bit different. Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims, Squanto had been kidnapped and taken to Europe, where he learned English. He escaped and returned to New England to find that his entire village had been wiped out by disease. Squanto began working with the Pilgrim colony for his own survival, as much as for theirs.

As James Loewen points out in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me “our archetypal image of this first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best next to their almost naked Indian guests.” (pg. 94) The common suggestion that Indians had never seen such a feast, despite that it consisted of primarily Native foods, continues to marginalize Indians and the role they play in the history of the Americas.

The real story is that Thanksgiving was not introduced by the Pilgrims. For centuries now, each fall Native communities throughout the Americas have been hosting feasts of thanks with the harvest. Our modern celebration began in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday, and it wasn’t until the 1890s that the Pilgrims were included in the myth.

It is a welcome break from our hectic lives to sit together as a family, group of friends, or community, and reflect on our blessings and enjoy a shared meal. This is the true story of Thanksgiving- gratitude for the bounty in our lives and honoring of the diverse traditions that create the fabric of our country.