Reflecting on the true history of Thanksgiving

For many, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with loved ones, celebrate our connections, and reflect on how much we have to be grateful for. This ritual is a tradition woven deeply into many families and communities. As an organization devoted to community, Northern Plains appreciates how meaningful the Thanksgiving holiday is for many of us. However, we are equally devoted to facing and telling hard truths, and we are deeply committed to ensuring that we do not perpetuate harm.

Many of us grew up learning a story of the first Thanksgiving that is more myth than truth. We learned that members of the Wampanoag Tribe came together with the newly arrived Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest in 1621.

But that story erases the broader history and context surrounding that meal. Cooperation from the British was short-lived after the first Thanksgiving. Colonists in the area quickly returned to attacking the Wampanoags and encroaching on their lands, despite agreements they had made with the tribe.

While the Thanksgiving myth offers a comforting “one big happy American family” image, the truth is that colonists all across this continent extracted resources, ignited conflict, brought disease, and violently forced Native peoples off their traditional land. The Wampanoags today consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning. The day remains exceptionally painful for many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. “It commemorates when the Europeans came to our land, and our way of life was to be forever changed,” says Northern Plains member Alaina Buffalo Spirit (Northern Cheyenne).

Meanwhile, Northern Plains member Tom Mexicancheyenne (Northern Cheyenne) says, “People wanted to come to this country to prosper but it was at the expense of the Native American people and the land.” Instead of a day of celebration, for Native people, Thanksgiving can function as a reminder of how little we acknowledge the true history of our nation and how little we understand the pain and violence European colonists inflicted on this continent’s original inhabitants.

Remembering history, honoring Indigenous culture

Instead of the Thanksgiving myth, we instead offer the following reflection from Tom on the deep relationship his people have to their land, culture, identity, and values.

We were sent here from the spirit world to live on this earth to take care of it – and it will take care of us. We are thankful and acknowledge the things we are given to help us live: the plants, animals, insects, water, the sky, the sun, moon, and stars, the clouds, the rain, the thunder that brings life to the earth. We acknowledge our thankfulness in how we carry out ceremony, and we live life knowing we are one with the earth and live in harmony with all living things.”

Much of our history and culture is being forgotten and not being taught to our younger generations. But there are historical reasons for that happening – when the colonists first landed, what came with that welcome, forced assimilation into society, boarding schools that punished children for showing our culture. Learning a new way of life and a different way of thinking based on money, materialism, and greed. As a result today, we struggle with loss of our identity, our language, our cultural beliefs and practices, with addiction, with violence and death, and with broken families. On many reservations, Native people in general struggle with a loss of our identity. I hope and pray we can hold onto and teach what we have left.”

Taking action

Learning more about the true history of Thanksgiving is just a start. What comes after that? We won’t attempt to outline everyone’s path, but here are a few suggestions from us at Northern Plains:

  1. Know whose land you are on. You can look up your address and learn which indigenous communities call your area home here.
  2. Acknowledge that we are on Native land during your Thanksgiving meal, and be thankful to our Native brothers and sisters for the way they have stewarded that land.
  3. Visit and honor Native landmarks that are part of the natural landscape around us, like First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm or Two Eagles Interpretative Trail in Bighorn Canyon.
  4. Support efforts to restore Native food ways in your area – especially fitting for this holiday that’s all about food. A few we’d suggest:

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