Myths About The First Thanksgiving

the-first-thanksgiving-jean-leon-gerome-ferrisTrue or false: the first Thanksgiving was a hospitable, cooperative harvest celebration among the Pilgrims and the American Indians.

Answer: we don’t really know for sure; that’s probably partly true and partly false. What we do know is that the idyllic image we teach our school-aged children is at best incomplete and probably quite wrong.

The Pilgrims did, indeed, have their first successful harvest at Plymouth Rock in 1621, and it makes sense they would have celebrated.

Whether or not the Wampanoag Indians were invited to participate is uncertain; some accounts suggest that the Indians heard all kinds of gun shot and whooping and hollering over at Plymouth Rock and headed over there to check it out. When they arrived and discovered there wasn’t enough food to go around, they went out hunting and brought back five deer, which they gave to the Pilgrim leader William Bradford.

Other reports say the first officially proclaimed Thanksgiving didn’t take place until 1637.

That was the year the Pilgrims put an end to a 3-year war over tribal land near the mouth of the Mystic River. They snuck into the Pequot Indian camp before dawn and massacred somewhere between 500 and 700 Indians. The English Captain John Mason called the attack an act of God. The same William Bradford who feasted with the Wampanoags allegedly wrote in his tome Of Plymouth Plantation that the Pilgrim victory was a “sweet sacrifice” and that his people “gave praise to God, who had [given] them so speedy a victory.  It was Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop who then proclaimed “this day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

And then white oppression of the American Indian continued.

imagesOver the next two and a half centuries, settlers and trappers and missionaries invaded tribal lands with military support, claiming it for themselves. In addition to killing thousands and possibly more than a million Indians, white oppressors raped Indian women, pillaged villages, spread disease, and rounded up the survivors, herding them onto reservations like cattle into a stockyard. There, many Indians were forced to strip off their traditional garments and eschew their traditional spiritual beliefs. They were forced to become civilized.

But still that wasn’t enough, because now descendants of those early white settlers are determined to lay a pipeline close to a reservation, threatening to despoil tribal land and drinking water as well as sacred burial ground.

Yes, Thanksgiving is a day to be grateful for all the blessings we have.

But it’s also a time to appreciate the pain and suffering that comes before the blessing. Just as we are each alive because a woman suffered her way through pregnancy and childbirth (and sometimes died in the process), most of us are here in this magnificent American landscape because of American Indian suffering.

Since 1970, many American Indians and their supporters have considered Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning–a day to remember the genocide of Native people, the loss of Native land, and the oppression of Native culture. Many gather near Plymouth, Massachusetts each year in solidarity. But this year, some of those people will instead be camped out in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

As of this writing, it is 37 degrees Fahrenheit at Standing Rock, where protestors are being bombarded by a police water cannon‘s cold water.

standing-rock-water-cannonWhether or not that show of force will send protestors home remains to be seen. I suspect some may leave, but others will stay and fight. This Thursday, while many of us are gorging on turkey and pumpkin pie, some American Indians will be honoring the National Day of Mourning by braving intermittent snow showers and a forecast low temperature of 28 degrees in North Dakota to, yet again, protect their land.

I’d like to propose we all pause for a moment this Thanksgiving.

Let’s show our gratitude for Mother Earth, and in particular for our American landscape, and for those American Indian ancestors who served as stewards of the land for millennia. And because we are, each of us, a steward, let’s consider what we can do to protect the land for future generations—whether that means buying local food for the table, or cutting back on paper plates and plastic cups, or turning down the thermostat by one or two degrees before collapsing in bed when the feast has ended.

Protecting the land can also mean going a step farther and supporting the courageous souls at Standing Rock in their fight to protect the land, its waters, and their sacred places. You can send a message to the Army Corps of Engineers, the White House, and your Congressional Representative, asking them to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline’s easement to drill under Lake Oahe until the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s waters and sacred places are protected. (Note, this doesn’t say stop the pipeline completely. It says let’s stop and think and discuss this further, guys.) Here’s some contact info, courtesy of the National Congress of American Indians. (Of course, there’s a revolving door in Washington DC right now, so we must act fast.)

  • Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of Army Corp of Engineers, (703) 697-8986,
  • Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff to the President (202) 456-3182,
  • To locate your Congressional representative, try this link:

For more information about Standing with Standing Rock, visit or

Also, if you’re interested in spending the long weekend reading up on American Indian history, here are two great reads:

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Timothy Egan

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown





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