Holidays are a time for family gatherings, great food and animated arguments. This year, on Thanksgiving, I personally enjoyed a delicious meal at my grandmother’s house with my cousins. This was a moment of unity with my family, but we didn’t acknowledge the problematic holiday that Thanksgiving is. Thanksgiving doesn’t exemplify the unity and inclusivity students are taught about in schools. As we approach the new year and an entirely new decade, it’s a good time to reflect how far we’ve come and more importantly, how far we have to go.
When I was in elementary school, I remember making pilgrim hats and Native American headdresses, and learning how the Native Americans and settlers were friends, with no conflict between them, whatsoever. I learned that the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful time between the Native Americans, specifically the Wampanoag tribe, and the English settlers. I thought that it was a meal to celebrate how the Native Americans helped the settlers when they first came to this new world. This ideology erases the fact that the English settlers—or Pilgrims—took land from its original owners, killed and enslaved the Native Americans mere years after this encounter.
While this is the common Thanksgiving story, another potential origin of Thanksgiving occurred in 1637. When English settlers found the body of a white man floating in a boat, they immediately blamed and massacred the tribe closest to them, the Pequot. The governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, declared a day of giving thanks to celebrate the massacre.
The issues facing the tribes on the East Coast soon made their way to the West. After the Civil War, more settlers moved West for the Gold Rush, and tribes that had previously been untouched had to deal with the same issues the Pequot and the Wampanoag did, years before, according to the socialistworker.org.
This movement to the West started what is now called the Indian Wars: a series of conflicts and battles between the Native American tribes and the U.S. Because the settlers were backed by the army, it made it difficult for tribes to keep their land or resources. The Indian Wars ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre when around 300 Lakota people were slaughtered by the U.S. Army.
Whatever actually happened, it’s unquestionable: there has been a long history of conflict and struggle between the U.S. government and Native Americans, which continues into modern times. Native Americans have the lowest unemployment rate and poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S., a fact that is overlooked or ignored by many Americans.
Compared to Thanksgiving, another less well-known event is National Day of Mourning, which also happens on the fourth Thursday of November. Organized by a group of Native Americans in New England, National Day of Mourning is a day of protest for the Native American lives lost because of white settlers and the continued struggling the Native American people face today.
Thanksgiving as a holiday doesn’t have to erase Native American culture and the struggles they face today, however, it does. On Thanksgiving, we don’t talk about how the origins of the holiday are problematic and how it’s based on a culture of ignorance. Knowing this information doesn’t mean you have to stop celebrating the holiday. Acknowledging the terrible actions of the English settlers and acknowledging the fact that Native Americans are still working towards social equality in today’s society is a step in the right direction. Moving on, it’s important to reflect on what privilege you have and how other have suffered for you to be able to have that privilege, and for you to be able to celebrate the things that you celebrate. We may look to the future, but history is what makes us.
Celebrating the things you have to be grateful for is okay, but I think as a society we need to speak out against these acts of inequality and unfairness towards Native Americans. If we can acknowledge the past and work to change its lasting effects, we’ll have a better today and tomorrow.