You wouldn’t celebrate a massacre, so why do people celebrate Thanksgiving?

When the pilgrims first arrived to settle in America, they were met with Native tribes such as the Pequot and Wampanoag. The Thanksgiving story traditionally taught in schools in America and Canada all follow the same narrative, that the pilgrim settlers came to an agreement with these tribes, celebrated by having a feast, and thus, we remember the union annually ever since. However, little is taught in schools of how these same settlers stole food from the graves of the Wampanoag tribe in order to survive their first years in North America, how they have been responsible for the massacre of thousands of Indigenous people ever since, and how today governments continue to enforce land displacement upon Indigenous communities.


Despite Thanksgiving being celebrated as a widespread National holiday in both the USA and Canada, the so-called harmonious union between the pilgrims and Indigenous Wampanoag tribe that is remembered annually has been historically disproven as an entirely fictional narrative. Although the mythology of Thanksgiving argues that the pilgrims and Indigenous community have been harmonious ever since this first feast in 1621, evidence of forced displacement, massacres, and the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples at the hands of the US and Canadian governments ever since proves the falsehood of this harmonious bond. In 1970 the United American Indians of New England labelled the last Thursday of each November, celebrated by many as ‘Thanksgiving’, a ‘National Day of Mourning’ preceding what is known to many as ‘Black Friday’ (‘Native American Heritage Day’). On these days, many Indigenous people mourn for the loss of their ancestors, with traditions such as fasting for 24 hours from sun-down, and gathering at Cole’s Hill, Massachusetts, to protest the continued appropriation of their traditions. Modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations, rather than drawing attention to the problematic history of settler-Indigenous relations, such as King Philip’s War, enslavement of Native peoples, ‘Indian Removal’ and Canadian residential schools, teach children to mimic traditional Native American headdresses and appropriate Indigenous culture. Thus, this article gives a brief history of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the US and Canadian governments from 1621, and addresses some of the ways historical injustices are still affecting Indigenous communities today.


Since 1621 multiple wars, battles, and massacres have taken place between Indigenous communities and the settlers that according to the Thanksgiving narrative, they have been living harmoniously alongside ever since. Notably, King Philip’s War (initiated by the settlers in 1675) was responsible for the death toll of half of the Native American populations of New England, and was followed by the declaration of more wars against Indigenous peoples, such as the Second Seminole War which aimed for Indigenous displacement. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson introduced the ‘Indian Removal’ act, in which the US government spent $75 million, (equivalent to approximately $1 trillion today) forcibly displacing 60,000 Native Americans from their homes. The Second Seminole War was fought on behalf of this act, however, despite remaining the costliest war the US government has ever been involved in, this ultimately ended in failure for the US government, with 300 Native Americans remaining where they initially were in Florida (their descendants still living there today). Thus, disproving the false mythology celebrated and taught today of a harmonious relationship between the pilgrims and the Indigenous communities of America since 1621, but rather highlighting the US government’s continual determination to gain more authority over Indigenous communities ever since.


In Canada, injustices such as the Canadian Indian residential school program focused on the purposeful cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, aiming to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ through brutality, poor education, and both the physical and psychological abuse of Indigenous children. Labelled by Jansen van Doorn as one of the ‘darkest times’ in Canadian history, these schools severely punished Indigenous children, subjected them to physical and psychological abuse, provided education focused on manual and domestic labour, had inadequate food provisions, poor sanitation, and shocking healthcare facilities. 24% of all Indigenous children across Canada died during their time at these residential schools, and Bryce reported that anywhere from 47-75% of children who were discharged from these schools died shortly after returning home. The last of Canada’s residential schools did not close until 1996, bringing me to the central point of this article, that although many believe injustices against Indigenous peoples human right’s to be a thing of the far past, they are actually part of very recent history, and persist in modern-day society.  


In just 2007, the UN created a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (one that had long been in the works since 1982, but was only completed in 2007, perhaps giving an indication as to the priorities of the UN) which protects the land and human rights of Indigenous communities. Even as recent as 2007, four countries objected to this act which provides basic International legal human rights provisions for Indigenous peoples: the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Since this, the US and Canada have reversed their position, but eleven other countries still abstained to this act being passed, again highlighting that these human rights violations are still very much an issue of the present.


Kisha James, a prominent member of the Wampanoag Tribe, argues that Indigineous people see no problem with families coming together and eating a meal on Thanksgiving, however, does have a problem with the false mythology of harmony and the erasure of historical injustices against Indigenous peoples from education surrounding the holiday – a stance that seems more than reasonable amongst this evidence. The ongoing erasure of historical injustices is proven to be facilitating the modern-day injustices facing Indigenous people, such as contributing to the 1 million Pygmes who have been displaced in the Congo during the lifetime of one man (Diel Mochire Mwenge). Indigenous societies are still perpetrated with mass violence, Geovaldis Gonzalez Jimenez speaking with approval from the UN Environment in 2017, claiming that ‘135 murders’ took place that year in his region, including a local leader who was ‘killed in front of a nine-year old boy.’  Alarming statistics related to the modern-day violence against Indigenous women, such as 84.3% of American Indian and Alaskan Native women having experience violence in their lifetime, highlight that issues of Indigenous rights and equality have not yet been achieved, and cannot just be erased from historical narrative. Thus, although it may not seem like it, injustices against the Indigenous communities continue to be a modern-day issue, that will not be solved until Indigenous history is addressed in educational settings in full.


It is important to remember that whilst Thanksgiving may be to many a light-hearted holiday, it is also a National Day of Mourning for many who remember their lost loved ones at the hand of an ongoing racial violence against Indigenous peoples. To answer the question posed in the title of this article, why celebrate Thanksgiving? Well, as Kisha James puts it, Thanksgiving has now become an ingrained part of American and Canadian culture. Thanksgiving celebrations are not going to end overnight, and maybe they don’t need to. However, it is clear that for Thanksgiving celebrations to continue in an unproblematic way, adjustments need to be made to the annual holiday, for example, teaching the actual historical events and injustices that took place, rather than a falsehood of a harmonious feast.


Featured Image: By Boston Public Library from Unsplash

One thought on this article.

  1. Joseph Meadows says:

    Very well written article with a powerful message, thank you! I recall similar arguments in my primary school days when we covered the native american genocides. Thank you for writing this, I think it’s important that people are constantly reminded this, especially non-Americans. However, I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t mention the origins behind why Thanksgiving became a national holiday – that during the American Civil War the American President was convinced that there needed to be a secular holiday that all Americans could celebrate. Of course, by Americans this did not extend to the Native Americans which is very problematic and should not be understated. I say this because many Americans today do not celebrate the genocide of the native nations (or a likewise false narrative of the European settler interactions with the natives) on Thanksgiving but rather they celebrate the origins of Thanksgiving found in the Civil War – a time when there was little to be thankful for yet people came together regardless. I simply wanted to answer your question of why people celebrate Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, the current state of treatment of native peoples in the Americas needs much improvement and I’m glad that there is some representation in government of native nations (such as the head of the US National Parks, recent elections in Alaska, etc.), but you’re right to point out the faults to be fixed.

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