Ah, Thanksgiving—what isn’t there to love? There is the food, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the anticipation of Black Friday, and to reiterate… the food. These things are great, but the holiday’s history is “unsavory.” As someone who loves the standard way of celebrating the holiday, I am not going to sit by and act as though I do not see the problems with Thanksgiving’s origins. I believe we as a society must educate ourselves rather than ignore the past and pretend the holiday exists solely because of thankfulness and family gatherings.
I feel as if most people in the United States have learned the same general background of Thanksgiving, which they were probably taught in elementary school while making turkeys out of handprints. The common story we often hear of sounds a bit like this: The pilgrims and Native Americans came first together in 1621 for a feast as friendly neighbors where they each pitched in something for the meal. This makes for a cute holiday cartoon special, but this narrative is incomplete, inaccurate and insensitive. This viewpoint perpetuates the idea that natives had not only no contact with Europeans before this, but no history as well, according to The Smithsonian Magazine. It erases the importance of the long-standing native presence, focusing just on the European perspective. In fact, the Wampanoag tribe only came to this “feast” as an alliance with the colonists after being decimated by the diseases they brought over. It was an act of survival rather than friendliness.
News media organization The Independent reports that similarly to Columbus Day, some view Thanksgiving as a “national day of mourning.” This is due to its roots in European colonialism and conquest. This narrative perpetuates a false idea that the natives and pilgrims had few differences, according to The Independent. I absolutely agree with this notion as it in a way infantilizes the struggles native people faced due to the arrival of colonists. In a time where more information is accessible than ever, why are children still being taught a romanticized version of their history, according to the University of Pittsburg’s Pittwire? I am all for celebrating family, recognizing blessings and giving thanks, but we must learn history or we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
Some may wonder why a holiday with roots in conquest (again, like Columbus Day) is still largely celebrated and even commercialized. As reported in The Smithsonian Institution, the establishment of a national day of Thanksgiving may be attributed to Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Lady Book. In 1827, Hale consistently called for a national holiday after writing articles and letters to senators. In 1863, it was proclaimed that Nov. 26 was the official date of the holiday, and then in 1941, the date was set on the fourth Thursday of November, according to the Smithsonian.
It does not help that aspects of Thanksgiving such as The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are widely televised and seem to ignore the ethical issues behind the holiday. How can people learn about history if they are not taught? A huge event of national mass media communication like the parade should be used as a way to tell history, or at the bare minimum, have an announcement or section dedicated to Indigenous people. It is upsetting that it seems like elementary students are often taught the same watered-down “origin” of Thanksgiving instead of the true and brutal history of European treatment of Native Americans.
While I call for the mandated teaching of Native American history and for national recognition of a day of mourning on Thanksgiving, I understand millions of people see the holiday as a day for family gatherings and appreciation. I agree and could not imagine spending any less time with my family on the day. However, I find it irresponsible to ignore the suffering Native Americans have faced (and still face) while glorifying a day dedicated to a false “understanding” between colonists and the Wampanoag tribe. I find it even more irresponsible that our political leaders, who have the power to proclaim an official national day of mourning, have not done so yet. We call ourselves “one nation” in our Pledge of Allegiance but have yet to truly recognize everyone.
I believe that while Thanksgiving Day is a great way to celebrate family, gratefulness and tasty food, there must be more done to recognize Native Americans and their suffering as a result of European colonization. We need to mandate teaching their history accurately in all schools, establish a day of mourning and give First Peoples more national recognition—at the bare minimum. Only by understanding our problems in the past are we able to progress as a nation.