Thanksgiving’s troubled past

by Sunyata Courie / Staff Reporter

The Pequot Massacre. Photo courtesy of Huffington Post.

Millions of families across America will gather this year on Nov. 28 for the annual Thanksgiving holiday. While contemporary mainstream practices of this holiday revolves around eating turkey, reconnecting with family and saying what people are thankful for, the real roots of Thanksgiving differ from the modern image. 

In recent years, there has been much controversy around the origins of Thanksgiving. Consequently, the idea of the perfect image of the Native Americans and Pilgrims having a peaceful feast in order to display their thankfulness for each other is being questioned. 

In 1637, the body of a white man was found dead in a boat near a group of natives. This led to the Pequot Massacre, the killing of an entire village of Pequot indigenous people.

“The governor of Bay Colony declared days after the massacre, ‘a day of thanksgiving. Thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children,’” according to the Huffington Post.

“The idea that we celebrate the Pilgrims sitting down and having a Thanksgiving feast with the Native Americans never happened. The pilgrims would have practiced Thanksgiving with prayer,” said colonial U.S. history professor Sandra Frink. “It would have been a day of fasting, not feasting.” 

Then how did America end up celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of every month? 

“It was made an official national holiday by Congress in 1941,” said Frink. As far as the reasons for reinstating the holiday, it is much more complicated. “George Washington suggested that there be a day of national Thanksgiving in November, but Congress was opposed to the idea because they didn’t think that the national government should be able to propose a holiday. Rather, the states should have that power,” Frink said.  

Other American presidents have also tried to create a day of “Thanksgiving.” According to Frink, Abraham Lincoln also called for a time of Thanksgiving in April of 1862 and August of 1863 to celebrate Union victories during the Civil War. “In the 1890s they start creating the story that the Pilgrims had this day of ‘Thanksgiving.’” 

If neither of the celebrations of Thanksgiving raised by two very influential U.S. presidents corresponds with the modern day celebration, then what is the point of telling the peaceful narrative between pilgrims and Native Americans? 

This gets more into the debate of how America chooses to tells its national narrative and origin story. Frink suggests that it is a “legitimization of European takeover of the Americas.” She sees this narrative as an attempt to glorify the holiday and paint the pilgrims out to be helpful and welcoming ones.

“In reality, there is no way the pilgrims would have survived without the Native Americans,” said Frink. “But that’s not the story we tell. We like to tell this more romantic image and one that really justifies imperialism.”

Challenging the traditional narrative of national holidays is complicated. When talking to people about their earliest memories of Thanksgiving and the way these practices carry into adulthood, they detail both confusion and miseducation as well as happy memories, family closeness and good food. 

Lilly Davis, a freshman sociology major, recalls being made to dress up as a Native American woman in elementary school. Her class was split in two — half of the class were assigned to be pilgrims, with the other half  being natives.

“At the time, I had never met a Native American before so I didn’t understand how problematic that was,” Davis said. “In the mind of that teacher, their culture was more of a costume when in reality we were being made to dress up as another race.” While acknowledging the complicated origin story, she mentioned that she is still looking forward to Thanksgiving so she can see her family.

Freshman musical theatre major Amy Kim recounted that her earliest memory of Thanksgiving was in first grade. “We had a thanksgiving feast every year in elementary school. My classmates and I all had our plates of food and wore pilgrim hats to reenact the feast.” Kim said that she can’t recall the mention of Native Americans being involved in the celebration. She believes this was because it was a Christian school, so they were trying to emphasize the giving of thanks instead. “Most of my family is in Korea, so it felt like a really empty holiday because it was just my close family and I,” adding that it “wasn’t a momentous thing.”

“We owe it to ourselves to confront the past in a more holistic and realistic way. And we could learn just as much, if not more,” Frink said.  

Categories: Feature


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