Native American Heritage Month: Week 3 - A Deeper Understanding of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a national holiday, deeply embedded into our culture and national identity. Practices of gratitude paired with family gatherings make for an important time and space for connection and meaning. Sadly, the traditions cultivated are often rooted in a false and painful narrative about what happened between the early settlers and the Wampanoag people. These myths are reinforced year after year by pageants where students dress up like “pilgrims and Hollywood Indians” and make handcrafted traditional Native headdresses. 

Here is some history about Thanksgiving that can be used to broaden your own practice and how you honor the day.
As shared by the National Museum of the American Indian, “Like indigenous groups everywhere, the Wampanoag had a reciprocal relationship with nature and believed that as long as they gave thanks to the bountiful world, it would give back to them. Long before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag held frequent Thanksgiving-like celebrations, giving thanks in the form of feasts and ceremonial games.”

This is the true origin of many Thanksgiving traditions, and yet, the holiday can be a painful reminder of suffering for Native American people. At the onset of arrival, Pilgrims made their way through Native villages and communities, dehumanizing and capturing Indigneous people, selling them into a slave trade, bringing with them countless diseases that further caused illness and hardship. The Wampanoag, a nation of villages scattered throughout present-day Rhode Island and Massachusetts, only had a fraction of their population survive. And yet, they formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the recent settlers, offering to teach farming skills in exchange for European weaponry. In October 1621, on the occasion of the first harvest, a feast was celebrated between the two groups, which was a uniquely peaceful moment.

Understanding the complexity of the full history can help us broaden our understanding of this place, the holiday of Thanksgiving, and ways to decolonize our practice, accurately rooting our own observance in ways that honor American Indian people. Resources abound on how to do this well, including this article, which outlines a number of resources for teachers and parents. 

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