Each November, grade-school children across the country celebrate the tale of the First Thanksgiving. Sometimes their teachers have them perform Thanksgiving pageants in which they dress up as Pilgrims and Indians to make friendship and launch the United States as a Christian, democratic beacon. Some progressive-minded schools add lessons about the “traditional” culture of the Wampanoag Indians who greeted the Pilgrims, void of any mention that this culture was not timeless but had evolved over millennia. However, after Thanksgiving season, indigenous people drop out of the curriculum, as if to reinforce the ideology of Manifest Destiny that nature intended them to disappear.
Using a shared meal as a symbol of Indian-colonial relations is a whitewash of the bloody expansion of the colonies and the United States. That history involved colonists and their successors waging dozens of wars against indigenous people marked by merciless killing, mass enslavement, and the seizing of Native territory as spoils. The aftermath included whites restricting indigenous survivors to impoverished reservations, reducing them to servitude, seizing their children for forced acculturation, and then taking what little was left of their land. Generations of white politicians, missionaries, teachers, and media justified this treatment by characterizing indigenous people as savage, lazy, incompetent, and alcoholic, whether by nature or nurture. This pattern played out across the entire United States, including New England.
The myth of the First Thanksgiving is so well known that it should serve as a foil for Americans to confront this uncomfortable history. The Wampanoag did not welcome the Pilgrims because they were “friendly.” In fact, they were wary of the Mayflower passengers after years of slave raiding from European sailors. Yet they reached out to the Pilgrims because they needed allies after an epidemic disease introduced by one of the Pilgrims’ ships wiped out most of their population and left them vulnerable to attack from the neighboring Narragansett tribe.
The Wampanoag were able to communicate with the Pilgrims not by some miracle but because some of them already spoke English. For instance, Tisquantum (or Squanto) learned the language after suffering for years as an English captive, before orchestrating an unlikely return to Wampanoag country. So much for the idea of the Pilgrim-Wampanoag encounter as a first-contact episode in which the English overawed the supposedly naïve Indians.
Using a shared meal as a symbol of Indian-colonial relations is a whitewash of the bloody expansion of the colonies.
It is true that the Wampanoag and English of Plymouth Colony feasted together in the fall of 1621, but their alliance was an uneasy relationship forged through a series of less genial events. Those episodes included English soldiers assisting the Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin (or Massasoit), when Wampanoag dissidents with Narragansett backing rebelled against Ousamequin’s alliance with Plymouth. There was colonist Edward Winslow doctoring Ousamequin and his people amid another outbreak of epidemic disease. Ousamequin returned the favor by warning the English that a coalition of Massachusett and Wampanoag Indians was plotting to wipe them out, to which the Pilgrims responded by killing the coalitions’ supposed ringleaders and displaying one of their decapitated heads outside Plymouth’s walls. The symbol of a shared meal obscures this bloody power politics.
Yet the grossest distortion of the Thanksgiving myth is that Plymouth and the Wampanoag were true friends. In fact, their relationship degenerated into the same murderous pattern that characterized the rest of colonial America. Predictably, the Wampanoag began to resent the English seizing their land and imposing their rule and religion. The two sides nearly came to blows several times during the 1660s and 1670s. Finally, in King Philip’s War of 1675–76, the New England colonies and their Native allies devastated the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nipmuc. Contrary to popular belief, the war was not the end of those peoples. The survivors carried on, and have done so to this very day, but under colonial subjugation.
Let us dispense with the Thanksgiving myth. Not only is it false history, but it teaches a lie that white Christians were destined to control the nation. Instead, we should reckon with the country’s dark colonial history and its legacies to better understand the inequalities of our society. Those legacies also include the paradox that Native Americans have survived and are now our countrymen and women, even as they continue to fight for the sovereignty, cultural autonomy, and economic self-determination of their communities against a nation that remains a colonial force in Indian country.
David J. Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving is out now from Bloomsbury