Every year, the students and teachers at the elementary school I attended would put together a Thanksgiving play that was acted out to an audience of our families. The play told a tale of a few very scared and timid colonizers who made the dangerous boat ride to America. The colonizers were then greeted by a group of friendly Natives, who eagerly welcomed the newcomers! The two groups worked endlessly to farm and harvest food together, and everyone was equal. The play ended with a scene that many of us were taught as being true, which is the first Thanksgiving, as the colonizers and Natives joined together to enjoy an extravagant feast.
What the performance did not share with us, though, was that when the Pilgrims docked their boat at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were followed by monstrous diseases and unnecessary wars. Almost immediately, colonizers began to push treaty limits with Natives as they continued to expand westward and exploit the resources provided to them.
The tale also did not tell watchers of the fact that Native Americans were being kidnapped and enslaved by the English for years before they decided to develop a settlement in the Americas. Puritans and English settlers eagerly rushed to the new land, which promised growth, opportunities and Native slave labor.
In 1637, widespread massacres of Native people became not only acceptable, but standard behavior. The Pequot Massacre was the first of many, and one of the largest, with seven hundred lives lost. The five hundred individuals included men, women and children. This mass slaughtering, and most of those that followed, were celebrated by the English. Pilgrims would gather after the war to praise their victory, while feasting on crops grown and harvested by Natives. They would then take time to acknowledge the “gifts sent to them by their creator” and show thanks, which is where the holiday name, Thanksgiving, came from.
The purpose of bringing awareness to this raw, true side of history is not to berate our former elementary school teachings, or to erase our history, but to bring notoriety to the abuse that Natives endured. Continuously teaching a sugarcoated version of history abolishes an entire culture’s experiences. It also creates a blanket of lies that implies that Indigenous people are not only currently, but have always been treated equally.
That narrative, though, could not be further from the truth. When America was in its earliest stages of life, Natives were forcefully evicted from their land and children were sent to boarding schools with the purpose of erasing any remnants of their tribal culture. Much of Native culture was also criminalized by settlers, such as the use of peyote for spiritual and ritualistic purposes.
It is estimated that over six million Native Americans lived peacefully in different societies across North America prior to the colonization of the land. They were able to successfully farm and harvest their own crops, hunt, establish communities and raise families. There were also three hundred Indigenous languages spoken throughout the Americas at one point, but now only 175 of which are still in existence and being used.
American historians worked endlessly to paint a narrative about the Native people to dehumanize them. They were called savages, cannibals and illiterate, despite there being evidence that actively disproves these things. Most tribes had their own spoken language, societal structures and religious practices. Much of their culture emphasized on being respectful of all living organisms, as well as respecting the land they used to harvest crops. But, by teaching the false history that Natives were violent, self-destructive people, we were able to nearly wipe-out an entire group of people.
The rights of Native Americans today have not made vast improvements. Many tribal members are still living on their reservations, where resources are scarce and addiction runs rampant. Since 1978, America has been enacting legislation meant to protect the rights of the Native population, such as rights to practice their own medicine and spiritual practices, but they are rarely enforced.
Today, Native Americans are battling a 27 percent poverty rate, an infiltration of gangs and a drug epidemic. Indigenous people are also disproportionately more vulnerable to violent crimes than other groups of people in America. Recently, activists have fought to bring attention to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, an epidemic in which Native American women are being murdered and going missing at disgustingly alarming rates. Their disproportionate vulnerability is due in part to the poor law enforcement systems that are established within reservations and the lack of teamwork within police forces across different counties.
Continuing to teach this fairytale about Thanksgiving further buries the history and oppression of Native Americans. History books are not always accurate, and by teaching this white savior story built on lies, we discredit the pain that Native Americans are still enduring.
The goal of this is not to bring an end to Thanksgiving, but to bring light to the true story. As you gather around a table with your families this holiday season, and as you prepare to give thanks, remember to acknowledge those who gifted us with the ability to grow the food we are enjoying. Give thanks to those who wrongfully were stripped of their land. Our generation is not responsible for the atrocities in the past, nor can we change them, but it is our obligation to reteach history to younger generations.