Putting Thanksgiving Into Context

Christina Woods is executive director of the Duluth Art Institute, where she promotes inclusive community participation, especially in the area of under-represented cultural narratives. (photo by Jessica Hill Photography)

Every Thanksgiving, my family puts out a spirit plate for our ancestors. I have taught my children the true origins of Thanksgiving. We give thanks for the sacrifice our ancestors made for us to be alive. The people that had to survive the pilgrims were Anishinaabe-speaking people, our ancestors.

Because of the Eurocentric myth, we have been taught that pilgrims were a persecuted people who arrived in North America with pure and altruistic intentions. Thanksgiving offers a symbolic narrative that Natives and pilgrims were friends, and that this friendship laid the framework for a great nation.

The truth is, Thanksgiving was packaged for nationalistic consumption, declared as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. After the Civil War, Americans were in need of unity and inspiration. Hence, the myth of the first Thanksgiving was born.

The Eurocentric story robs us all of our historic truth, and of the opportunity to educate about social consciousness and human evolution. I prefer the more accurate version below. As a Native diversity consultant in Duluth, my role includes reaching out to organizations to help build inclusive understanding. My journey comes from an upbringing embedded with the challenges of poverty, homelessness, and trauma. Healing through traditional ways, the challenges of my experience have brought opportunities for me to advocate, empower, and recognize the deeper stories of humanity.

By bringing truth to the Thanksgiving myth, we can create space for conversation about healing, unity, and what it means to be good human beings, rather than conquerers or the conquered.

If you enjoy the bounty of Thanksgiving food, family, peace, and joy this season, offer a remembrance to those who suffered at the hands of the pilgrims and suffer still today.

The Colonization of Turtle Island 

by Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Pauite-Chippewa-Cree) 

One day, the Wampanoag people of the Eastern coast of the Americas noticed unfamiliar people in their homelands. These unfamiliar people were English pilgrims, coming to a new land they dubbed “America,” in order to settle and create a new life. 

The Wampanoag were initially uneasy with the settlers, but they eventually engaged in a shaky relationship of commerce and exchange. Also, in observing that the pilgrims nearly died from a harsh winter, the Wampanoag stepped in to help. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, eventually entered into agreements with the pilgrims. At one time, the Wampanoag and pilgrims shared in a meal of wildfowl, deer, and shellfish. 

After Massasoit’s death, the Wampanoag nation became weakened as a result of disease contracted from the English. It wasn’t long before the pilgrims began tormenting tribes, burning entire villages to the ground. Uneasy with the growing cruelty, greed, and arrogance of the new people in their homelands, the Wampanoag began to distrust the pilgrims. The pilgrims soon demanded that the Wampanoag submit to them, and give up all their weapons. 

Shortly after, the pilgrims and Wampanoag were at war, and in the end, the pilgrims rose victorious. At the close of the war, the Wampanoag were nearly decimated, and the son of Chief Massasoit, Metacom, was killed by the pilgrims, dismembered, beheaded, and his head impaled on a spear outside of Plymouth. Metacom’s young son was sent to the West Indies as a slave along with many Wampanoag. 

Indigenous nations throughout America were continually betrayed by European settlers, killed by disease, poisoned by germ warfare, hunted for bounties, sent overseas as slaves, and ultimately pushed out of their homelands and onto prison camps (now commonly known as reservations). Few survived the depressing conditions. As a result of centuries of historical trauma, Indigenous nations today have staggering rates of depression, mental health disparities, suicide, and deaths due to alcohol and drugs. Indigenous people continue to struggle to cope with historical trauma, and heal deeply embedded wounds, which stem directly from colonialism. This is not the end.

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