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Thanksgiving Day - first-thanksgiving

Painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936) – Painted in Honesdale, PA, or New York, 1914
Material: Oil on canvas

The sentiment behind the Thanksgiving Day myth is a noble one. It’s a day set aside to show reverence and gratitude to God. And so each year, American children are told the story of the first thanksgiving. They’re told how Native Americans helped the pilgrims make it through that first harsh year in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Children are taught how the grateful settlers invited their new friends—the Native Americans—to an enormous feast to celebrate their survival in the new land.

It’s an endearing story of the mingling of two diverse peoples who learned to live together peacefully in mutual respect of each other’s cultures and religions. Thanksgiving Day, in our history books, tells a tale of people who came together in tolerance and trust, with beneficial results to both sides. But, not all stories are true. Even if the Thanksgiving story we’ve been taught is not wholly inaccurate, it does fall short in capturing the perspective of the Native American participants of that first gathering.

A quest to understand this perspective takes us back years before the pilgrims ever set foot in Plymouth. We need to go back to the late 1400s when European explorers first came in contact with Native people. The unsuspecting people of the Arawak tribe welcomed the European sailors and greeted them with gifts of food and water. In fact, Christopher Columbus commented on the giving nature of the Arawak people saying that they were “so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….



Title: Christopher Colombus, lithograph by Turgis.
Created / Published
Paris : Vve. Turgis, [between 1850 and 1900]

Holy Genocide

The Europeans responded to this generosity with promises of friendship, treaties and trade. But, this introduction proved to be disastrous for the indigenous people as many were captured, made prisoners on the European ships, and then transported to Europe to be sold as slaves. Others who refused to trade with the Europeans were slaughtered. The Arawak were given quotas to find gold for the Europeans and if they failed, their hands were cut off causing them to bleed to death. Some were mutilated, some were hung, and some were worked to death. The bleak situation led to mass suicide, and caused some desperate mothers to kill their own children to keep them from suffering.

By the mid 1500s, the Arawak people were wiped out, but word of the brutality they had suffered at European hands traveled. Despite hearing reports of widescale slavery, torture and murder, when they “watched the Mayflower’s passengers come ashore at Patuxet, they did not see them as a threat” according to Michelle Tirado, author of “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story.” This is where our Thanksgiving story begins.

Like the trusting Arawak, the Patuxet agreed to trade with the pilgrim settlers. They shared their knowledge of how to grow food and survive in the unfamiliar land. But, relations between the two cultures quickly dissolved into hostility after the peace treaty of 1621 was broken. Tension was fueled and refueled as the Patuxet watched pilgrims rob graves, steal their winter supplies, and claim more and more Native American land for themselves.

The pilgrims quoted scripture to justify their actions. They appealed to Psalms 2:8, which said, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Their reasoning was that prophecy had bequeathed the land to them even if it meant murder.

To rationalize their ruthlessness in acquiring it, they cited Romans 13:2 where it says, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Abuse and treachery on the part of the pilgrims became the norm.


The painting “Desembarco de los Puritanos en America,” or “The Arrival of the Pilgrims in America,” by Antonio Gisbert shows Puritans landing in America in 1620. By Antonio Gisbert (1834-1902) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Day of Slaughter

In 1637, the pilgrims attacked around 700 men, women and children of the Pequots tribe who were gathered together for their annual harvest ceremony. They shot them, they mutilated them, they scalped them, and they burned some of them alive. And then, they celebrated. “The killing frenzy got so bad that even the Churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the “heathen savages,” and many celebrated by kicking the severed heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls.”

The day after the butchery in Pequot, William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony is quoted as declaring, “a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots.

The Pequot War

The Pequot War – Charles Stanley Reinhart drawing circa 1890 – English colonists under the command of Capt. John Mason attacking the Pequot fort at Mistick – The Granger Collection, New York

William B. Newell is an Penobscot Indian and a former University of Connecticut anthropology department chairman. Of the Pequot massacre he said, “For the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” Unfortunately, the atrocities against Native Americans did not end with the Pequot massacre. In time, the colonist began scalping Native Americans for government-sanctioned profit.

According to the article, “Atrocities Against Native Americans,” the European settlers were paid ”fifty pounds for adult male scalps, twenty-five for adult female scalps, and twenty for scalps of boys and girls under age twelve.” Jamie Oxendine, Director of the Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation said, “Colonial men were allowed to enslave and rape any Native woman and enslave any Native child under what was thought to be the age of 14.” For these and other reasons, many Native Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving.

Salt on Old Wounds

Time has whitewashed the Thanksgiving Day story. Artist renditions have shown images of benevolent pilgrims breaking bread with happy Native Americans. History seems to have forgotten the horrors that led to this celebration, but Native Americans have not.

“The First Thanksgiving” as depicted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in 1912.

“The First Thanksgiving” as depicted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in 1912.

In fact, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a plaque still exists, which aptly expresses the sentiments of the Native American descendants of those indigenous peoples. It reads, in part: “To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.”

Tim Turner, co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours, explains, “For the most part, Thanksgiving itself is a day of mourning for Native people.” And so, while millions of American families gather around the dinner table in celebration of Thanksgiving Day, many Native Americans gather at Cole’s Hill near Plymouth Rock to acknowledge the 47th National Day of Mourning. For many, this is a day to remember the atrocities the Native Americans have faced for hundreds of years.


Participants in the National Day of Mourning – Image Credit: OpenMediaBoston.org

Insult to Injury

But, this year…this Thanksgiving is special. According to Twilight Greenaway, a “group of chefs, activists, and volunteers will be traveling to Standing Rock to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner” for 500 protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Greenway’s article, “These Chefs Are Preparing a Thanksgiving Feast at Standing Rock,” says that these protesters who make up a “diverse group of people from a wide range of indigenous tribes” have endured “everything from rubber bullets to tear gas in an effort to stop the construction” of the pipeline that threatens to contaminate the drinking water of thousands of Native Americans.

“We’re talking about 500 years of oppression; we’re talking about taking a stand and saying, ‘We’re not doing that anymore.’ You can’t just plow your way through this land because the Army Core of Engineers said you could,” says Jeremy Stanton, a Great Barrington, Massachusetts owner of a sustainable butcher shop.


Seven-year-old Omaka Nawicakinciji (R) of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota participates with his mother Heather Mendoza (L) during a rally on Dakota Access Pipeline August 24, 2016 outside U.S. District Court in Washington, DC. Activists held a rally in support of a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers ‘to protect water and land from the Dakota Access Pipeline,’ and to call for ‘a full halt to all construction activities and repeal of all pipeline permits until formal tribal consultation and environmental review are conducted.’

Cattle rancher John Harder and his dog Ruger pause for a portrait at the site of an old ground water well near the spot where the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pass through his property on October 12, 2014 outside Winner, South Dakota. Harder says he is the only man left in South Dakota who has not agreed to let the pipeline pass through his property.

Remembering Every American This Thanksgiving

There are truly two sides to every story, and the Thanksgiving Day story is no exception. Like in the 1400s and the 1600s, in 2016, our Native American brothers and sisters are suffering a continuing assault on their culture. So, this Thanksgiving, we can rightfully thank God for the blessings of the previous year. Let us do so while remembering, vowing to never forget, the plight of the Native Americans—the first Americans—and their ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.


Protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in Pierre, South Dakota. Numerous Native American tribes, ranchers, politicians and people against the pipeline came together to hold a rally on the steps of the state’s capital building.


The Harvard Crimson, ”“Celebrating Genocide

The Wampanoag Side of The First Thanksgiving Story” by Michelle Tirado

The Dark Historical Roots Of Our ‘Thanksgiving’ Lest We Forget…” From Tristan

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