Thanksgiving table

Columnist Paula Bekkerus explains why we need to reform the narrative surrounding Thanksgiving. 

The holidays are a wonderful (and my favorite) time of the year. There’s food, there’s family, there are friends and there is happiness. But there’s also some hurt around Thanksgiving, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

The Thanksgiving holiday is based on the Pilgrims, religious separatists, who founded Plymouth in hope of freely practicing their religion without fear of persecution. However, they faced an extremely rough first year: survival was a struggle because of disease and hunger.

But the Indigenous people were there first. With the help of Squanto, a Native American of the Pawtuxet tribe, the Pilgrims were taught how to grow corn, catch fish and more so they could feed themselves. He also helped them form peaceful relations with Indigenous tribes in the area, including the Wampanoag tribe.  After the first successful harvest, the Pilgrims hosted a festival-like celebration that lasted three days. Their Indigenous allies were invited, and thus, the first Thanksgiving was born.

Of course, this is the white-washed version. The truth is that no matter how many ways the story is spun, it’s still colonization. We are originally taught the friendly version, but in reality, travel to the “New World” was ridden with slavery, disease and genocide.

Each year on Thanksgiving, we should not be celebrating colonization and genocide. We can and should, however, recognize the traditional themes of thankfulness and community while using it as a time to unlearn the white-washed version of Thanksgiving, instead replacing it with education and decolonization.

First, we must listen. What are Indigenous peoples saying about Thanksgiving?

Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have protested through a National Day of Mourning, which is set on Thanksgiving Day each year. To many Indigenous folx, Thanksgiving is just a reminder of genocide and land theft. Why celebrate Thanksgiving when there’s nothing to celebrate? So, this day is used as a day to mourn the past while also looking forward to the future by acknowledging activism efforts toward equity.

Dennis Zotigh of the Smithsonian Magazine wrote about the romanticization of Thanksgiving. He also included Indigenous voices and how they feel about Thanksgiving. There’s a wide variety of responses, including some who celebrate the holiday and some who don’t celebrate at all. 

Next, whose land are you on? This interactive map provides information about different tribes, territories, languages and treaties.

Third, put your money where it matters. The infamous Black Friday can be a good way to get your holiday shopping done (or, if you’re not into the crowds, it at least acts as entertainment to watch other people who go all out for the deals.) However, Nov. 26 isn’t just Black Friday; it’s also Native American Heritage Day. So, this year, along with your Black Friday deals, buy from Native businesses, artists and creators. Here’s a huge list of Native-owned businesses you can support, and there’s even more just a Google search away.

Finally, we need to do a better job within education about telling the true story of Thanksgiving and not erasing Indigenous people’s voices. Here’s a large list of literature where you can start:

For kids

For teens/young adult

Further education, special topics and more

For educators


For more information on Thanksgiving and Indigenous people, check out these resources:

The Indianapolis Public Library: What does Thanksgiving Mean to Indigenous Peoples?

The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian: Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving

Time: The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday.

Paula Bekkerus

Columnist Paula Bekkerus is a senior in English with a journalism and mass communication minor.

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(2) comments

Facts and Logic

Well folks, it's that time of year again - time for the annual article about how bad Thanksgiving is! I do actually agree that the history surrounding Thanksgiving is not taught properly - but not at all for the reasons you give.

First, why was the first Thanksgiving celebrated? Many people believe that it was a festival to thank the native people for their help and contribution to the Pilgrims' survival in the New World. However, this isn't even close to true. If you read George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation, you'll see Thanksgiving was designed as a "...day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness...". Thanksgiving wasn't about thanking Natives for their contributions, but about thanking God for what the Pilgrims saw as His divine intercession for their benefit.

Second, what was the community the Pilgrims built really like? In reality, the Plymouth colony was originally a communal, socialist society. Land was held by all, and crops were distributed equally to all in the community. Sound familiar? The Pilgrims tried socialism long before Bernie Sanders was around! However, the Pilgrims soon found this didn't work. According to William Bradford himself, "...For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense." The Pilgrims turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism, and almost immediately began experiencing more success. Why isn't this taught it schools today? Because it's inconvenient. Socialism is back in style, and many think it's time to try it - even though we've already been there and done that.

Finally, Thanksgiving is not at all about 'slavery,disease, and genocide'. The Pilgrims lived with Natives and traded with them. Fighting with natives didn't occur until later on. So please, feel free to celebrate Thanksgiving in the way it was originally intended - as a way to thank God for the many blessing that we both as individuals and as a nation enjoy.

Facts and Logic

Also, let's talk for a quick second about your guidelines about Thanksgiving.

First, why are we still insisting on using made up words (folx) to address people? Fascinatingly enough, by polling people in such groups overwhelmingly do not want to be referred to using these terms. For example, only 4% of Hispanic adults wanted to be reffered to as 'Latinx' (https://news.gallup.com/poll/353000/no-preferred-racial-term-among-black-hispanic-adults.aspx) Why then, is this term so popular? Because (generally) white, upper-class liberals have decided that it is 'antiracist' - against evidence, and against the preference of actual people affected by it.

Second, let's talk about who's land you are on. You're on the land of the United States of America (see, every current map). Let's not pretend Natives lived in peace and harmony before colonization occurred. There was constant fighting between tribes, and land 'ownership' constantly shifted. That's not a bad thing, that's just reality. So let's not pretend colonists were uniquely bad in history - all people groups did the same things, some were just more successful than others.

As far as putting your money where it matters, if you are truly concerned about living on stolen land, then give it up! After all, wouldn't it be deeply hypocritical of you to only talk of how you live on stolen ground? Buy land and return it to its 'original' owners! Better yet, move back to Europe or wherever your ancestors are from! Otherwise, all you are doing is posturing - if you truly believe you live on 'stolen' ground, do something about it.

Don't feel like moving? Then spend your time trying to actually make a difference - for example, talking to legislatures about the state of Native Americans today - it's an absolute disaster area that is roundly ignored by liberals, because it's quite inconvenient to the narrative.

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