Thanksgiving is celebrated annually in the United States of America as a day to remember the many blessings of the year and celebrate the Fall harvest. Common knowledge is that the Thanksgiving Dinner tradition is modeled on a celebratory feast between the pilgrims of Plymouth and the indigenous people of the Wampanoag tribe. While this story does hold truth, there is more to the story of pilgrims and indigenous people that often is not mentioned.

In the year 1620, the pilgrims first settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts and times were tough. Many of the settlers did not survive the first winter. The European settlers eventually met an indigenous man named Squanto, who spoke English due to being sold into slavery in Europe.

Squanto was a member of the Patuxet tribe, and when he finally escaped slavery and returned home he discovered the entire Patuxet tribe had been killed by smallpox. He went to live with a nearby tribe, The Wampanoag, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

National Day of Mourning plaque detailing the beliefs of Native Americans in regards to Thanksgiving.

National Day of Mourning plaque detailing the beliefs of Native Americans in regards to Thanksgiving. Photo credit: Around Dusty Roads

Luckily for the pilgrims, Squanto acted as an interpreter for the Wampanoag tribe. He helped the pilgrims establish a treaty with the indigenous tribe, and taught the pilgrims to plant corn, catch fish, and find nuts and berries. This was crucial for the early settlers, who were close to dying out completely.

In October of 1621, a celebration of the first fall harvest took place that is often considered the “First Thanksgiving”. The festivities consisted of a three-day feast that 53 pilgrims and 90 indigenous Wampanoag attended. Thanksgiving today is modeled after this event which occurred as a joyful celebration depicting a peaceful time between this group of settlers and the indigenous tribe.

Unfortunately, it is one of the very few occurrences of this type and does not accurately depict the relationship between the Indigenous people and European settlers. The European settlers created many years of chaos, destruction, and death for the indigenous people after moving to North America.

Indigenous People's Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island.

Indigenous People's Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island. Photo credit: Miki Pryor

Data from Russell Thornton is believed to give one of the most reliable appraisals of the population of Native Americans prior to and following Columbus’ arrival in North America. According to Thornton, “Native American populations were probably reduced not only by the direct and indirect effects of the disease but also by direct and indirect effects of wars and genocide, enslavements, removals and relocations, and changes in American Indian societies, cultures, and subsistence patterns accompanying European colonialism.”

Thornton’s estimate states that in 1492 before Columbus came to North America, there were believed to have been more than five million indigenous people living in the region of the modern-day United States of America. By the year 1800, the population of the indigenous people had dropped to about 600,000. The population hit an all-time low in 1900, at about 237,000 people.

Since 1900, the level of violence has been substantially lower, but deaths of Native Americans continue to occur periodically due to the federal government, vigilantes, and wars abroad. Thornton estimates about 12 million indigenous peoples deaths occurred in America since Columbus first arrived.

Demonstrators showing a sign from the sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz Island.

Demonstrators showing a sign from the sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz Island. Photo credit: Carl Begay

As a result of this ongoing mistreatment of an entire demographic group, Native Americans in the modern United States of America continue to be murdered by police at a higher rate than any other demographic group. They are affected by highly disproportionate levels of extreme poverty, unemployment, poor housing, preventable diseases, poor health care, drug abuse, and suicide.

The current generation of Americans had no part to play in the tragic decisions made by the first European settlers of this region. Americans do however have a choice in the present. Having an entire holiday based on a rare peaceful occurrence and choosing to teach future generations about the supposed friendship between these groups rather than showing the deadly truth supports the very decisions that caused so much death in the first place, thus continuing the cycle of struggle for Native Americans.

On the East Coast, an annual protest led by Native Americans “The National Day of Mourning” has been occurring since 1970 on Thanksgiving Day. The organizers of this observance consider Thanksgiving Day a continued reminder of the democide and suffering of Native American people. Participants of the protest use this day to honor Native ancestors, recognize their own struggles to survive today and educate Americans on the history of Thanksgiving.

Indigenous people's sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz island in 2016.

Indigenous people's sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz island in 2016. Photo credit: Denis Ivan Perez

Also held on Thanksgiving Day on the West Coast is a ceremony known as “The Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony” or “Unthanksgiving day”. This event is held on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to honor the indigenous peoples of America and promote their rights.

Both celebrations set a great example for the country. The United States of America needs to shift the focus of Thanksgiving to a day to honor the Native Americans and a day for mourning the lives that were lost. Many Native American families already practice this tradition at home. A lot of Native American families still choose to gather with loved ones and share a meal, and that does not have to end.

Americans need to stand together, and the only way to be truly united is to recognize the Native Americans as neighbors, stand with them and show empathy for all the unjust pain that has been caused to them. This Thanksgiving season, while remembering all the reasons to have gratitude, take a moment of silence to mourn the lost lives of the indigenous population, and pay respect to the Native Americans.

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