The True, Indigenous History of Thanksgiving

The True, Indigenous History of Thanksgiving

Illustration by Peter Hermes Furian

The pop culture story of the First Thanksgiving, often told to children in grade school, is a myth. For the true story of what happened at the First Thanksgiving, and how Indigenous lives have been affected ever since, Bioneers’ Indigeneity Program’s Alexis Bunten (Aleut/Yup’ik) hosted a conversation with Chris Newell (Passamaquoddy), the Akomawt Educational Initiative’s Director of Education.


ALEXIS: I’m really happy that you’re joining me today, Chris, to talk about Thanksgiving as a tradition, as a myth, and what happened on the real Thanksgiving. First, could you tell me a little bit about the Akomawt Educational Initiative? 

CHRIS: Sure. That word, Akomawt, is from my language. I’m a Passamaquoddy, coming from Maine originally. Akomawt translates to “the snowshoe path,” and it’s the symbol driving the mission of what my partners and I are doing at Akomawt. We’re trying to change the way Native people are talked about in all levels of education.

The snowshoe path, in my territory, was the common way that people made their way out into the woods to collect things like firewood and look for places to hunt. They would spread themselves out from a snowshoe path to get their work done. As they had to find their way back home, they would return to the snowshoe path.

In that way, we’re creating new learning paths for the world in general, not just Native Peoples but non-Native folks as well, to engage Native content. One of the things this comes out of is our observances at the Pequot Museum

We work with a lot of non-Native educators who come to that museum asking us how they can teach Native culture better. We can do a great job inside the walls of the museum, but not every school can come there. What this means is that we need to take the onus on ourselves to bring this education outside of the walls of the museum in a way that is culturally competent, but is also respectful of Indigenous perspective, especially when it comes to issues of history and contemporary issues. 

We use the word “decolonize” a lot, and that has a lot of application in what we do. But really what we do at Akomawt is re-indigenize history. History in America has always included Native Peoples. We’ve been there through every piece of American history: World War I, the American Revolution, World War II, the Industrial Revolution. Native Peoples were there for each and every part of that. Yet we’re not very well talked about in American history education, and that needs to change. It’s rendered us into a relatively invisible culture. 

We need to make Native Peoples once again human in the history of this country, to add our perspective of how this country was formed. There’s a whole different side that’s not being told. We teach kids myths. We teach them lies sometimes, not always knowing that we’re doing it. Students grow up, and they take this with them.

There’s so much that needs to be done, and Akomawt is trying to answer that need in a regional sense, but also in a larger, national sense, to change the conversation. Let’s go beyond the myths that have been told. Let’s expose those for what they were and what they are, and let’s start teaching truth. When we teach even the very young the truth about how this country was formed, with Indigenous perspectives included, they actually grow up to become better citizens of this country. They understand all aspects of how we arrived where we are today. 

We’re doing a disservice to our children by not giving them all of the facts when it comes to things like Thanksgiving. There is some truth to the widely told story of the First Thanksgiving. But there are a lot of mistruths as well. By exposing that, we change the story of colonialism from one of sanitization, as represented in the modern First Thanksgiving story. We provide a Native perspective.

ALEXIS: I totally agree with you that re-indigenizing our knowledgebase and worldviews is important, no matter what our backgrounds are. Whether we’re Indigenous, settler descendants, or a little bit of both. It has so many benefits for being a responsible citizen and understanding what this country stands for, and what our responsibilities are to change it and shape it in the direction that’s inclusive and upholds our values for equality in this country. 

There is no bigger time of myth making and telling lies in the public educational system, and private, in America, than Thanksgiving. It’s such a big moment every year. I was wondering if you would share with me the real story of the First Thanksgiving.

CHRIS: The narrative of the First Thanksgiving doesn’t really appear in America until the 19th century. The first claim of a First Thanksgiving was in 1841 in a publication by a gentleman named Alexander Young. He had found a letter from somebody who was there at Plymouth in the 1600s: a man named Edward Winslow, who was one of Bradford’s men. The letter described the harvest that took place in 1621 between Massasoit’s people, the Wampanoag, and the Bradford’s people of the Mayflower, English settlers who had just arrived there.

This was an actual event that happened in history. There’s no doubt that there was a feast between Massasoit’s people and Bradford’s people. But while the 19th century narrative called it the First Thanksgiving, the 17th century ideas of Thanksgivings on the Native side and the English side were very, very different than our modern-day interpretation of what a Thanksgiving is. 

On the English side, a Thanksgiving was a day of fasting and prayer. It was a very solemn occasion. Sometimes they took place as celebrations of harvest, so it’s not completely divorced from the modern idea of Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t uncommon for the English to declare days of Thanksgiving after a victory in a battle or a war.

In fact, one of the first declarations by the English of a day of Thanksgiving actually happened after the Pequot massacre in 1637 in Connecticut. After that massacre, John Winthrop, who was governor of the colony of Massachusetts Bay, declared that day in May an English day of Thanksgiving.

These folks were Calvinist reformers. They were very religious and very much into interpreting the scripture in a very personal way. The idea of making merry on a day of Thanksgiving, which is supposed to be a solemn day of prayer and fasting, would’ve been looked down upon.

The idea of Thanksgivings as celebrations of harvest is more along the lines of what the Wampanoag and other tribes in this region did. They would have continual, year-long Thanksgivings in celebration of the harvest of different foods as they became available. And they would typically celebrate them with feasts.

ALEXIS: I think one thing that most Americans don’t realize is that a lot of tribes across North America were very successful farmers. People often don’t realize that the people of the region in the Northeast farmed, and that the harvest they were eating was the Native foods. The Pilgrims were farmers coming from England, but they didn’t even have the right kinds of seeds to grow here.

CHRIS: Right. The English arrived in Plymouth in 1620. They set up a settlement there, but that first winter, half of them died. Before the feast, the English were starving and searching the area for any food they could find. They disturbed several Wampanoag graves. They also stole a cache of dried corn to survive. This all made Wampanoags wary of these folks that they had never met.

The English had grown vegetables back in England, but what they grew there didn’t grow as well in the soil conditions and weather conditions that we had here. They would have had to learn horticulture from the tribes. All over the continent, tribes had started to grow corn, beans, and squash as complementary farming. If you grow them together, not in straight rows as we do nowadays, but in bunches, they will actually help each other grow. They will feed each other, and you will get bigger vegetables than if you grew them separately. That first feast would’ve been a lot of corn, beans, and squash. Especially corn. Corn is the staple food of Native Peoples all across the continent. 

So Massasoit was weary of Bradford’s people. They were cutting down the trees. They were building permanent structures. They were changing the landscape. So he sent in a group of 90 warriors. This is a fighting force, which threatened the English, of course, in a way. They didn’t come with a specific threat, but they showed up with 90 men.

The English had guns. They had new technologies that were very interesting to Massasoit’s people, who became engaged in trying to figure out how to use them. The English decided to showcase their guns, and were doing military drills at this feast. The feast lasted three days, and the English contribution was, according to Bradford’s account, waterfowl. Not turkey, but ducks and things like that. Massasoit’s people brought five deer.

Really, that was a very tense encounter. It wasn’t the happy time that the narrative of the First Thanksgiving that’s been told in the 19th century and onward depicts. 

ALEXIS: It all sounds like women and families weren’t very present.

CHRIS: 20th century paintings depict the First Thanksgiving with a lot of women. Even though the real account that we have from Edward Winslow says that on the Native side, there were no women. But depictions of it will look very friendly, with a lot of women.

The first Thanksgiving as illustrated by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932

ALEXIS: Always serving food. Patriarchal, always doing the serving role.

What are some ways that people today, once they’re educated about Thanksgiving and where it comes from, can decolonize or re-indigenize Thanksgiving to make it better fit the kind of America they want to live in?

CHRIS: Well, first off, let’s throw out the First Thanksgiving narrative. Let’s just get rid of that story and stop teaching it as fact. 

Now, let’s talk about where the actual Thanksgiving holiday came from. This is how we can work on decolonizing it. It was first declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. Over the years, states had started to celebrate Thanksgiving as a celebration of harvest. They were borrowing, once again, from the Wampanoag. These were happening in different states at different times. Most of them were in November.

A very important woman who has been totally written out of history was named Sarah Josepha Hale. She was the first woman to publish a book, Northwood, in the English language in the Americas. She wrote a little ditty called “Mary Had a Lamb,” which we all know these days as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” And she was also the editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was the precursor to Ladies’ Home Journal. Godey’s Lady’s Book, under her editorship, raised from a distributorship of 5,000 to close to 500,000. In the 1800s, this magazine had a humongous sphere of influence on American culture. Sarah Josepha Hale made it her mission to create a national holiday to bring together all of these holidays that were happening around the country. 

The idea of the typical Thanksgiving dinner came from her description of a New England Thanksgiving dinner in Northwood, which involved turkey and also a lot of major meats. That became the popular picture of Thanksgiving dinner. And for years, she wrote editorials saying, ‘We need to create this national holiday.’

Eventually Sarah Josepha Hale became friends with Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and through that friendship, she became a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Through her influence with this magazine, she was able to get Abraham Lincoln to agree with her, and that’s how we ended up with that First Thanksgiving proclamation: a national holiday on the last Thursday of November. It was done by proclamation for years after that, and then finally Congress created the national holiday using the First Thanksgiving narrative that had became popular.

So it became a myth of how this country was founded. It was a way for people to get their minds around a great story of the creation of this country. To build nationalism amongst them. 

ALEXIS: How do we effectively teach young people about the history of colonization and Native Americans? I’ve heard a lot of parents say they don’t want their kids to hear about all this brutality.

CHRIS: Young people can handle more than we give them credit for. The Pequot War was the first time a European power took on a Native power here in the Americas and won. This was an attempt at a genocide. The English intended to wipe out the Pequots completely. I’m teaching that to third graders, and guess what? They can handle it. They can understand it. They can digest it. They can realize that it’s not their fault that this happened. They don’t feel guilt about it. 

It broadens their understanding of how their state and country came to be, beyond the fairytale. It includes all the good, the bad, the ugly, because if we don’t include that, we’re not going to learn from it. That’s such an important takeaway for our educators and our children: When we teach these things, we don’t teach them as a way to make people feel guilty. The idea is to expose that this happened, to expose that it was probably the wrong decision, and to discuss how we, going forward, can avoid making the same mistakes. 

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