Chloe Plescher: 'Tis the season of ignored history

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 5:37pm

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As Halloween ends, Americans look forward to the next major holiday: Thanksgiving. Excitement for a day full of family, football and food fills the air and motivates students and workers to push through their stress for a day or two off. However, while the holiday is centered on gratitude and food, its true history is ignored — exchanged for the colonized version prominently told in classrooms and cartoons.

The traditional story goes like this: In 1620, the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World. After a difficult journey, they landed on Plymouth only to barely survive the winter. But with the help of the Wampanoag tribe teaching them how to cultivate the land, the Pilgrims had a bountiful harvest in 1621 and shared a feast with the Wampanoags. While a sweet story, it is riddled with falsehoods — all wrapped in a bow. There is no mention of how the Native Americans had already established autumnal harvest feasts, how the Pilgrims viewed the tribes as savages or how the colonizers slaughtered the Pequot tribe 16 years later in the Mystic massacre. 

The story is not completely false, though. There was a feast in 1621 seemingly shared with the Wampanoag tribe. However, it was likely due to the Pilgrims’ desperation for food or to draft a treaty. The feast was not the stereotypical, happy gathering society depicts. In fact, there was not another such feast until 1637 after the aforementioned Mystic massacre, in which hundreds Native Americans were slaughtered, with estimates as high as 700,  including women and children. Survivors were enslaved. Deemed by the leading Captain Mason as an “act of God,” the massacre marked the end of the Pequot War and demonstrated a brutal future for the Native people. The day after the massacre, Governor John Winthrop declared the colonizers’ victory a “day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” As such, historians have proposed this celebration was a mixture of both events. 

Yet, the traditional story continues to be told. And it makes consumer sense. The story of Pilgrims, adventure and gratitude is heartwarming, especially when compared to the truth. The whitewashed version of Thanksgiving not only erases the history of the holiday, but it erases the entire history between colonizers and Native Americans. By telling stories about how Native Americans and colonizers got along, the history of genocide is ignored. 

We cannot change our history or how it has been previously told, but we can change how our history is told going forward. We can acknowledge the hurt our government has inflicted and the current crises Native Americans are facing. There are high suicide rates among Native youth, a homelessness crisis, violence against women and land and human rights issues. These are only a few issues Native Americans face, yet almost all are consistently not given adequate coverage by the news and other media.

This does not mean Thanksgiving needs to be spent in shame and guilt. Instead, we should strive to recognize that traditional depictions of Thanksgiving are not historically accurate, and not everyone in America celebrates it in that way. For example, the United American Indians of New England work to educate others about the reality of colonizer interactions, teach the actual history of Thanksgiving and honor those who were slaughtered. They host a National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass. The event is held on Thanksgiving, and it was started by Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Frank James. This event contrasts with the traditional Thanksgiving celebration, and it does not necessarily mean everyone in America needs to participate. Rather, the National Day of Mourning serves as an educational example and as an opportunity for people to reflect on our nation’s treatment of Native Americans. The event reveals the history too many choose to ignore.

The aforementioned Mystic massacre was the first major conflict between Native peoples in America. English colonizers paid no attention to who they killed, callously murdering American Indians in their path. Our American Thanksgiving marks the colonizers’ win and one of the mass slaughters of Native Americans. Obviously, our Thanksgiving now does not celebrate the brutality and genocide of Native Americans. However, it is still important to understand our history and acknowledge what our past people and United States government has done and continues to do. The government continues to mistreat Native American tribes, as seen with the Dakota Access Pipeline and federal control of Native American land. 

When we, as the victors, distort history to our favor, we are not only doing a disservice to Native Americans, but we are doing a disservice to ourselves. We can never know everything, but we can educate ourselves on our American history and learn from it. When we acknowledge that the Pilgrims and Puritans were not saints, and how the American Indians were brutally raped, murdered and enslaved, we can start a process of healing and reparations. 

There is nothing wrong with celebrating a traditional Thanksgiving. Eat your turkey, cheer for your favorite football team and relax with your family or friends. However, remember there is more to Thanksgiving than gratitude and the sharing of food. The U.S. has an ugly history with the Native Americans. So, as Thanksgiving approaches, remember the catastrophic history of the first Thanksgiving.

Chloe Plescher can be reached at chloebp@umich.edu.