What is Thanksgiving Really About?

Lily Stringfellow

What is the meaning of Thanksgiving? For many people, it is a time to sit down with their family and celebrate all the things they are thankful for. It could correspond with the Autumn season, football games, a break from school, and partaking in a decadent feast. For me, it is a reminder that the holiday season is forthcoming, and a day to eat some very interesting tofurky adaptations to the iconic turkey dinner. But for others, it could be a reminder of the oppression and racism that followed.

I do not identify as an Indigenous person, but as an ally, I want to present the truth in a thoughtful way. It can easily slip someone’s mind, that just years after the first dinner, John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts’ actions lead to a devastating massacre of Indigenous people. It is unclear of what events occurred, but supposedly the “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Winthrop, to celebrate the safe return of English colonists after brutally murdering 600 Pequots, after they had laid down their weapons and accepted Christianity. In a letter written by Winthrop in 1634, addressing the mounting conflict with Native Americans, he states: “For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.” So what’s the first step to picking apart the ethics of the holiday itself? We must take down this manufactured construct of a happy dinner amongst “pilgrims and indians”.

There is misinformation surrounding the holiday. Children are taught that the pilgrims came to the New World to escape religious persecution and start a new life. When in fact, according to the Washington Post, “The Pilgrims left Britain in search of religious freedom, but found it in Holland in the early 1600s, where they found a high degree of religious tolerance. The reason they wanted to come to the New World and establish a colony was to preserve their English identity and for economic reasons.” Another thing, if you believe we have been celebrating Thanksgiving annually since the year of the feast itself, that would be incorrect. In 1789, George Washington established Thanksgiving as a holiday. He proclaimed November 26 as a day to celebrate and be thankful. After persuasion from the citizens and public canvassing for a national day, Abraham Lincoln declared it to fall on the last Thursday of November in 1863. The holiday has slowly become a nationally recognized occasion, and something that some people celebrate yearly. However it has become extremely controversial, should we really celebrate the stealing of land, and wiping out of an entire people?

When doing research on how people who identify as Native American celebrate Thanksgiving, I found that it varies from family to family, and I certainly would not make a generalization about an entire group of people. But, according to Newsweek, “Native Americans say the day is not a holiday but rather a celebration built on a lie, one they would rather spend indulging in some self-care instead of turkey and yams. Some even refer to the day as Day of Mourning or Unthanksgiving Day.” It is regarded as a time for reflection, rather than celebration, and a time to acknowledge the culture. Being as the Voyagers from Europe colonized and forced their religious beliefs upon them. In a 2015 paper by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the author of “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” made the estimate that, “…the population of indigenous people was decimated by 90 percent in the Americas from 100 million to 10 million upon colonization. As of 2011, the United States Census Bureau counted 5.1 million Native Americans living in the U.S.” Through the pillaging of villages and killing of people, including women and children, and colonization of agricultural land, human rights were taken far too lightly. It was an absolute awful time, that cannot be validated by claiming it was an inevitable occasion in history. Yes, it probably would have been colonized. No, it did NOT have to be done in this brutal way.

Native and Indigenous people are still facing racism through the means of racist slurs, people and tribes being used as mascots for sports teams, and being paraded around on backs of jerseys, as well as being played as characters with extremely inaccurate representation. In addition, the clear class separation and large socio-economic disparities. People are currently working to provide better healthcare for Indigenous people who have consistently been ignored. The IHS states, “The American Indian and Alaska Native people have long experienced lower health status when compared with other Americans. Lower life expectancy and the disproportionate disease burden exist perhaps because of inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, discrimination in the delivery of health services, and cultural differences.” This is proof of poor social conditions, and issues rooted in areas such as economic diversity. We need to acknowledge the unfair treatment of Native and Indigenous people throughout our history, whether that be through reservation or displacements camps, racial slurs, or insensitivity to a holiday based on stolen land. There are a lot of ethics involved in Thanksgiving, which could be argued profusely, but I encourage people to be thoughtful about what exactly they are celebrating.