Importance of knowing the history behind Thanksgiving

Posted by the Bells on Nov 15, 2017

Thanksgiving is a holiday many Americans look forward to. From the food and the Sunday football games to the family gatherings, Thanksgiving is a holiday that holds a special place in our hearts.

What started out as a tradition to symbolize peace, later turned to hatred between Americans and Native Americans. This poses an interesting question – should we be celebrating a holiday that focuses on peace when there was actually a long string of violence afterward?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday as a day of friendship and camaraderie. However, it would be lying through our teeth to say we celebrate this as a day of peace, because the peace did not last and it lead to the death and mistreatment of the Native Americans for centuries to come. This even continues today, with the standing rock pipeline issue in the Dakotas as an example.

According to, in 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast, which is considered to be one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. In March, any remaining pilgrims went ashore and met an English speaking Abenaki Indian. A few days later, the Indian returned with another Native American named Squanto, who was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. He had been previously kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto saw how badly the pilgrims were fairing in this new land and decided to teach them how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with a local tribe called the Wampanoag. This alliance would endure for more than 50 years.

This is the story we were taught as children. However, the peace was only temporary and the feast and treaty are tragically one of the sole examples of peace between the European colonists and Native Americans.

Over the next few decades, relations between settlers and Native Americans deteriorated as the former group occupied more and more land. Supposedly, the first major dispute was in 1675 called King Philip’s War, that left some 5,000 inhabitants of New England dead, three-quarters of those being Native Americans.

In terms of percentage of population killed, King Philip’s War was more than twice as costly as the American Civil War and seven times more so than the American Revolution.

Throughout the next few centuries, the American Indian wars killed millions of people from both sides and left a dark stain in American history. Wikipedia defines The American Indian wars as “multiple armed conflicts of European governments and colonists against the native peoples of North America. In many cases, wars resulted from competition for resources and land ownership as colonists encroached onto territory which had been traditionally inhabited by Native Americans.” These conflicts occurred in the current boundaries of the United States and Canada from the time of the earliest colonial settlements until 1924.

The Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. This authorized the forced removal of Native Americans into federal territory called reservations. The Trail of Tears happened during this time. The Trail of Tears, which was a series of forced removals of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to an area west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory, now known as reservations, happened during this time. The relocated people suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route, and more than four thousand died before reaching their various destinations. Later, some of the reservations were taken away from the Natives again in an effort to make the Native Americans assimilate into the American culture. This new act was encouraged through The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 and it terminated the tribal status of numerous groups. It played a significant role in increasing the population of urban Indians in succeeding decades. states that Native Americans and other activists are expressing issues with how the Thanksgiving story is presented to the American public, especially to schoolchildren. The traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of millions. Since 1970, protesters have gathered on the day designated as Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a “National Day of Mourning.” Similar events are held in other parts of the country.

The mistreatment of the Native Americans started not long before the colonists arrived, but got worse when Europeans arrived. There was little peace and where peace did exist, it didn’t last long. Celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday as a day of peace should not be how we go about approaching the holiday. Instead, we should look back on history and acknowledge that there was little peace. We made the Thanksgiving holiday into a day of friendship and peace. While that may be true now, it wasn’t then and it is something we can’t ignore.

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