Thanksgiving is a complex holiday with a history both sorted and revised. We all are taught in school that Thanksgiving was a day where the newly settled Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians shared a meal to give thanks. The settlers supposedly thanked the Wampanoag for showing them how to survive while the Wampanoag were thanking the Pilgrims for new friendships. Food from the recent harvest was cooked and all ate in thanks.
Historians do question what really happened at this first Thanksgiving meal. The truth of the matter, though, is that even if there was a moment of peace and thanks amongst these two groups, it was soon followed by violence. The Pilgrims, who were running from religious persecution in their own homeland of England, almost immediately started to persecute the Wampanoag for their different religious beliefs. That’s right; the American hypocrisy started early.
These Pilgrims set out to convert the “savage” Indians and their “savage” beliefs. What ensued from this was years of bloody battles, both sides participating. Pilgrims purposefully infected blankets with small pox that they would give to the Native Americans, who had never been exposed to the disease. This clearly was the first use of biological warfare in America. Native Americans retaliated by killing and scalping white settlers. The violence and anger only escalated from these two beginnings. This is a time of American history that we should not forget. We should be thankful that it ended.
Don’t misunderstand me; I appreciate having a day when most Americans gather with their friends and family and give thanks. Many people verbally express what they are thankful for and why. I think this is truly a good practice. In fact, I regularly give thanks for that which I am thankful. But I know not everyone does, so having a day like Thanksgiving is necessary to remind us of all we have to be thankful for—large and small.
What I do not appreciate is a revisionist history that paints the first Thanksgiving as the beginning of a time of peace and acceptance. This is simply a lie. The Pilgrims, who sought a place where they could have religious freedom, immediately imposed their own religious beliefs on others. This is not religious freedom. The Pilgrims, who received help and guidance from the Wampanoag tribe, immediately then started to try and “fix” the tribe’s people. Pilgrims received goods and food and help in their time of need, but the Wampanoag needed “fixing?”
I further do not appreciate the implications that the white settlers were the only bad guys in this part of history. Yes, I do believe and support that they performed bad actions against all the tribes, but so did many of the tribe’s people. To say that there was a good side and a bad side ignores the complexity of this period in history. Both sides had goals that they were trying to reach with the other. Some people on both sides attempted to complete the goals through violence, lies, and devastation.
November is National American Indian Heritage Month. Perhaps we can start to recognize the American Indian heritage by not presenting a revisionist history to our youth. Yes, we should acknowledge the good that came from the Pilgrims, but we should not ignore the bad. We should not pretend that disease, disaster, death, and devastation did not follow for centuries!
Moreover, we should be thankful every day. We should not just reserve it for one day a year. We should act and grow with thanks for all in our lives. We should be thankful the Wampanoag Indians helped the Pilgrims. We should be thankful that the Pilgrims presented new ideas. We should even be thankful for the negative aspects of this period, too, because we learn and grow from both the negative and the positive. However, we should learn and not try to impose our ideals onto others. In addition to giving thanks, Thanksgiving should be a day to remind us of just that.
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