A Celebration of Barbarity: The Intergenerational Trauma of American Thanksgiving
“This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”
– Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, December 29, 1813
As the time of the year for achingly uncomfortable embraces from distant family members twice removed, falling into deep, food-induced slumbers on recliners, and football bets between cousins makes its solar return, let us question the origin of the questionable holiday Americans hold so dear to their hearts. While we spend time preparing for the day ahead, ask yourselves: do I know the true history of the first Thanksgiving? The one neither innocent nor as simple as the whitewashed version we are indoctrinated into believing in grade school.
The fallacy of the widely-accepted myth goes a little something like this: Fleeing religious persecution and seeking a land of freedom, the Pilgrims sailed from England on the Mayflower, landed on Plymouth Rock on November 9, 1620, and nearly perished their first winter. With the help of Squanto, the friendly Wampanoag native, and his people, the Pilgrims learned to fish, farm, and were protected from other savagely hostile tribes. To show their gratitude, the colonists threw a huge feast honoring their Native American counterparts. Joined by 90 of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit’s men, the first Thanksgiving of 1621 celebrated life, love, and friendship, and ended in the signing of a peace treaty.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
While this rendition of history is a truly heartwarming tale of peace and harmony, the historical inaccuracy in what we accept as truth is alarming.
In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author and historian Charles Mann recounts an inconvenient history. In 1614, six years before the Pilgrims landed in modern-day Massachusetts, an Englishman named Thomas Hunt kidnapped Tisquantum (née Squanto) from Patuxet, his village that was part of the Wampanoag Confederation. Along with Tisquantum, Hunt kidnapped close to two dozen other Wampanoag and took them to Spain, where he tried to sell them into slavery. With the help of Catholic friars, Tisquantum escaped slavery and then found his way to England. By 1619, he finally returned back to current-day Massachusetts.
But while Tisquantum was in Europe, an epidemic had swept across New England, taking the lives of countless Indigenous peoples. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation recorded that a shipwreck of French sailors earlier in 1619 landed on Cape Cod; one of them carried a disease that wiped out the majority of coastal New England (figures drastically high when compared to the estimated 30%-60% death rate of the Black Plague). When Tisquantum returned to Patuxet, he was alone.
Unlike their earlier European counterparts, when the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of the continental United States, they wanted to stay. The disease that exterminated Patuxet (and New England) made it physically possible, giving the Pilgrims the upper hand. (Read more about disease and the decimation of Native peoples in Jared Diamond’s key text Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies.) Thus, Patuxet became Plymouth. In the words of Paula Peters, member of the Mashpee Wampanoag and expert on Wampanoag history, “The graveyard of [Tisquantum’s] people became Plymouth Colony.”
Massasoit, the sachem and political-military leader of the Wampanoag Confederation, did not trust Tisquantum. Having not survived the outbreak, the Wampanoag became much weaker than their rivals, the Narragansett. Thus, Massasoit began to strategize: he decided it best to ally with the English, control supply of their good, and maintain a good trading relationship to protect themselves from the Narragansett. Thus, the decision to create an alliance with the Pilgrims was out of necessity, tribal rivalry, and provided the Wampanoag with a chance to fortify their strength against the Narragansett.
On March 22, 1621, Massasoit went to meet with the Pilgrims, bringing along Samoset, an Abenaki chief, and, reluctantly, Tisquantum to translate. Having showed up at Massasoit’s home a year and a half prior, Massasoit was worried that in a crisis Tisquantum might side with the foreigners, according to a brilliantly detailed 2005 piece in Smithsonian Magazine. For the next year, Tisquantum stayed in the colony and became an integral key in survival for the Pilgrims.
By the fall 1621, the colonists were relatively stable due to the help of Tisquantum, and held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with around 90 men, most of which were armed. To intimidate Massasoit and his men, the Pilgrim militia began firing guns in the air. Both sides then sat down, ate, spoke about trade and the Narragansett. The feast ended with the signing a peace treaty.
The 1637 Pequot Massacre
The story of Tisquantum would forever reshape the course history.
As word spread in England about the paradise across the pond, flocks of religious zealots, called Puritans, began arriving at the shores. They too, along with other British colonists, perceived the land is be lawless, and thus began seizing territories, enslaving able-bodied Indigenous peoples, and killing many more.
However, the Pequot Nation—of modern-day Connecticut—had not agreed to the treaty negotiate, leading to the Pequot War (July 1636 – September 1638). On May 26, 1637, near present day Mystic, Connecticut, over 700 Pequot men, women and children had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival. Two colonial officers—Captain John Mason and Captain John Underhill— led a group of several hundred men, including Narragansett and Mohegan warriors, to the Pequot encampment. Just before sunrise, the Pequot were awaken from their slumber and surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them outside. Those who followed orders were met with bullets and clubbed to death, while women and children in the longhouse were burned alive. Those who survived the initial attack were sought, killed, or enslaved.
In Of Plymouth Plantation, a journal written over several years, Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony described the massacre as such:
Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”
The next day, Governor Bradford declared “A day of thanksgiving. Thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.”
The Pequot Massacre emboldened colonists and their allies and led to the pillaging of countless villages thereafter. Women and children over 14 who were not murdered or taken as concubines were sold into slavery. Boats packed with as many as 500 slaves regularly departed the shores of New England for Europe. Monies were also paid for Indigenous scalps to encourage as many deaths as possible. William B. Newell, member of the Penobscot Nation and former chairman of the Anthropology Department at the University of Connecticut noted that “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”
Following a highly successful raid against the Pequot in current-day Stanford, Connecticut, the churches announced a second day of "thanksgiving" to celebrate victory over the savages. During feasts, decapitated heads of Indigenous Peoples were kicked through the streets like soccer balls. Metacom—also known as King Philip—second son of Massasoit and chief of the Wampanoag Confederation was quartered and beheaded in Plymouth, Massachusetts on August 12, 1676; his head was impaled on a pole and remained on display for 25 years.
“For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won,” William B. Newell, member of the Penobscot Nation and former chairman of the Anthropology Department at the University of Connecticut, stated. George Washington finally suggested that Thanksgiving be celebrated one day instead of celebrating each massacre. Later, Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863, less than a year after he commissioned the nation’s largest ever mass execution: the hanging of 38 Sioux men in Mankato, Minnesota in December 1862.
Predatory Continuums of Disenfranchisement at the Hand of White Supremacy
From the onset of colonialism, Indigenous Americans have continuously been subjected to grave injustices at the hands of the white supremacy and the United States government.
50% of Native Peoples are homeless, with homelessness rates differing per reservation. Statistically, Native Americans have the lowest employment rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, where only 1/3 of men in Native American communities have full-time, year-round employment. While 79.9% Native Americans, aged 25 or older, had at least a high school diploma or GED, only 14.5%. In comparison, 87.5% of the overall population age 25 and older had a high school diploma or higher, and 31.3 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Native American women also have a significantly higher risk for domestic violence than groups in the States. A study from the National Institute of Justice reveals that 84% of Indigenous women have experienced violence in their lifetime over half have endured this violence at the hands of an intimate partner. 66% say they have been the victims of psychological aggression by a partner. Comparatively, 35% of women and 28% of men in the general U.S. population have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Nearly 97% of these crimes against women have been committed by non-Native individuals. And until an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) passed in 2013, tribal courts in the 566 federally-recognized Native American tribes across the country did not have jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators. This meant these non-Native offenders were essentially granted immunity for their crimes.
The Politics of Remembering
Striving toward an acknowledgement of trauma and observation of a nationwide Day of Mourning has been seen by some as a move toward revisionist history. On the contrary, due to the current political climate, efforts to retell history are increasingly and equally as important as they are empowering. By refusing to challenge the historical inaccuracies at hand and continuing to teach our children the fraudulence of the kind, God-fearing Pilgrim and Noble Savage, we become agents of white supremacy.
In an attempt to pacify the victims of history, People of Color are constantly encouraged to forget. Whether in our immediate families or in our greater society, we are told to forget our histories of systematic oppression and the racist superstructures that are still pervasive within communities of Color today. Furthermore, in an effort to build bridges and recognize our aligned and interconnected struggles, there must be a greater movement toward interethnic Black-Brown-and-Indigenous solidarities. Aside from the breathtaking, widespread display of genuine Black and Brown solidarity with Indigenous America during the 2016 and 2017 Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the histories of Native America, Black America, and Latinx America extend back hundreds of years. Our histories have not carried on in themselves alone: they are deeply interwoven, and similar to their Black and Brown family, Indigenous America stills deals with the toxic byproducts of colonialism tenfold.
In order to heal from the societally ignored wounds of an indisputable genocide, we must begin practices of remembering. Remembering is radical self-love and one of the greatest measures of (Act)ivism one could practice. By utilizing memory, we honor all of those who have fallen resilience is directly responsible for our existence.
Whether Indigenous to the United States or not, do provide space for Indigenous America in your thoughts not just today, but every day. Say a prayer for the unsung heroes who unjustifiably lost their lives; for the children, women, men, and elders murdered in the name of salvation. Acknowledge that your history books lied to you and that Native Americans still, in fact, exist.
And understand that the fight against Native America did not end with the Pilgrims: it is still alive and well today. In a harrowing instance of irony, the federal government ruled on September 5, 2018 that the Mashpee Wampanoag—the same Nation that showed the colonists how to survive, who were present at the 1st Thanksgiving—does not qualify for a reservation, reversing an Obama-era decision to place 321 acres into federal trust for the tribe.
For those living in North America, use this interactive map to see which Native territory you currently reside on, call it by its name, watch films and educate yourself on Native American history, and see how you can support local and national Indigenous causes.
This piece is not meant to shame anyone for giving thanks for their loved ones: it is meant to serve as a reminder that history can be rewritten and retold by the hunted. By openly acknowledging the sins of the collective past, is it possible to create a path toward a more inclusive future.