Why We Need to Unpack the History of Thanksgiving

portrait of Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.
by Vanesha McGee, M.Ed.

Published November 30, 2021

Reviewed by Erica Moore, Ph.D.

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Why We Need to Unpack the History of Thanksgiving

Indigenous people lived on the lands that became the United States for tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Today, 574 federally recognized tribes exist in the United States, and Indigenous people account for about 2% of the U.S. population.

A brief encounter between the Wampanoag people and colonists, later called Pilgrims, led to the creation of one of the most popular holidays in the United States. However, U.S. historians and politicians reframed and repackaged this encounter — while leaving out significant details — to engage public nationalism.

For hundreds of years, mainstream U.S. history has largely ignored or misrepresented the brutality waged against Indigenous people by colonizers in America. The continued invisibility of Indigenous people today stems from the erasure of their voices and experiences. Inaccurate representations of history create gaps in our understanding. To address problems that still persist today, we must recognize the true history of Thanksgiving and the United States.

Thanksgiving's True Origins

Long before the "first Thanksgiving" feast, both the Pilgrims and Indigenous people held celebrations of thanks. Indigenous people celebrated the harvest with festivals that included dancing, feasting, and honoring the land. Europeans held religious services that included prayer, fasting, and giving thanks for their blessings.

But what do we know about the true origins of Thanksgiving? Historical accounts vary depending on the source, although some say that, in 1621, a three-day festival celebrating the Pilgrims' first successful corn harvest began. The Wampanoag people, led by Ousamequin, went to the Pilgrims' feast investigating sounds of gunfire. The Wampanoag tribe assumed the Pilgrims were under attack and came to offer aid. But they were not initially invited to join in the celebration. Although these two groups of people did spend three days together, they remained wary of one another.

After the harvest festival, relations deteriorated as colonists repeatedly stole from and murdered those native to the land. History lessons often gloss over the brutality of the fighting, disease, and genocide that decimated the Indigenous people and their tribes.

The Invention of a Modern Thanksgiving

In 1789, George Washington signed a proclamation for a national day of Thanksgiving. This official government declaration included no reference to the 1621 feast.

If Pilgrims and Indigenous people could sit down to a feast together, celebrating each other over delicious food, then present-day Americans could do the same — or so the story went. A successful campaign promoting this storyline led Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Fictitious images, plays, and books began to pop up, portraying generous Pilgrims feasting peacefully with Indigenous tribal members. Thanksgiving as we know it started to come alive.

Carefully curated and incomplete Thanksgiving origin stories misrepresent history, the holiday, and the harsh impact of colonization. Knowing the truth about Thanksgiving's origins matters.

Support Indigenous Communities This (and Every) Thanksgiving

Indigenous people lost their lives, their land, and their history, as well as their traditions, culture, spirituality, and entire way of life, during the colonization of the United States. This Thanksgiving, consider focusing on the communities who suffered most from the rise of the U.S.

Reflect on the lives lost and give something back to the Indigenous people who continue to fight for their land rights and an accurate telling of historical events.

However, be sure to avoid engaging in acts of cultural appropriation — such as being insensitive about wearing costumes made to emulate traditional outfits — that take agency away from Indigenous people. Instead, try out the following ideas to actively support Indigenous communities on Thanksgiving and throughout the year.

Check out Native Now's guidelines to help you respectfully discuss Indigenous people with family and friends.

Resources to Learn More About Indigenous History

Primary resources available at the Library of Congress offer direct access to original documents that can aid your understanding of Thanksgiving and its real history. The resources listed below can supplement your knowledge of Indigenous people and cultures and help you unlearn false history lessons.




Frequently Asked Questions About Thanksgiving

Do Indigenous people celebrate Thanksgiving?

Many Indigenous people in the U.S. do not celebrate Thanksgiving as it does not honor a complete historical representation of their ancestors. However, feasts and opportunities to give thanks do exist throughout Indigenous communities. Some Indigenous people, led by the Wampanoag tribe, observe a National Day of Mourning as a day of remembrance.

When was the first Thanksgiving?

The first attributed Thanksgiving took place in 1621. European settlers, later named Pilgrims, were joined by Wampanoag tribe members after the Pilgrims' first corn harvest. However, over 200 years passed before Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. And Thanksgiving didn't officially become a federal holiday until 1941.

What is the meaning of Thanksgiving?

Today, Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November that honors the importance of community. Giving thanks, as the holiday's name states, is an important aspect of the day. Family and friends often share gratitude for one another while feasting on a traditional meal.

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