Friday, November 27, 2009

"The First Thanksgiving": Cracking Open the Brittle White Lies

[this photograph of Judy Dow with her artwork is from here]

Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”
by Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin
Revised 06/12/06

[I added more myths, and the link was updated on 12/26/2015.]

What is it about the story of “The First Thanksgiving” that makes it essential to be taught in virtually every grade from preschool through high school? What is it about the story that is so seductive? Why has it become an annual elementary school tradition to hold Thanksgiving pageants, with young children dressing up in paper-bag costumes and feather-duster headdresses and marching around the schoolyard? Why is it seen as necessary for fake “pilgrims” and fake “Indians” (portrayed by real children, many of whom are Indian) to sit down every year to a fake feast, acting out fake scenarios and reciting fake dialogue about friendship? And why do teachers all over the country continue (for the most part, unknowingly) to perpetuate this myth year after year after year?

Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? This belief would help contradict any feelings of guilt that could haunt us when we look at our role in more recent history in dealing with other indigenous peoples in other countries. If we dare to give up the “myth” we may have to take responsibility for our actions both concerning indigenous peoples of this land as well as those brought to this land in violation of everything that makes us human. The realization of these truths untold might crumble the foundation of what many believe is a true democracy. As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.

We offer these myths and facts to assist students, parents and teachers in thinking critically about this holiday, and deconstructing what we have been taught about the history of this continent and the world. (Note: We have based our “fact” sections in large part on the research, both published and unpublished, that Abenaki scholar Margaret M. Bruchac developed in collaboration with the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation. We thank Marge for her generosity. We thank Doris Seale and Lakota Harden for their support.)

Myth #1: “The First Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
“Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday. Its traditions began in the New World with a feast shared by the Pilgrims and Native Americans….The Pilgrims decided to have a three-day celebration feast to give thanks for a good harvest. Thus began the first Thanksgiving.”
Judith Stamper, Thanksgiving Fun Activity Book
“In New England the first traditional Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Plymouth colonists.”
Kathy Ross, Crafts for Thanksgiving
"During the fall of 1621, he declared that there would be a feast to celebrate their first bountiful harvest…. Today, we think of that wonderful harvest feast…as the first American Thanksgiving. (Although for them Native Americans, it was actually their fifth thanksgiving feast of the year!)”
Deborah Fink, It's a Family Thanksgiving!
“The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the Pilgrims’ very first harvest….[The cornucopia reminds] us of the first Thanksgiving when Pilgrims gave thanks for their first rich harvest in the New World.”
Janice Kinnealy, Let’s Celebrate Thanksgiving, A Book of Drawing Fun
“The feast at Plymouth in 1621 is often called The First Thanksgiving.”
Robert Merrill Bartlett, The Story of Thanksgiving

“The pilgrims wanted to give thanks for all the good food. That was the first Thanksgiving."
Karen Gray Ruelle, The Thanksgiving Beast Feast

No one knows when the “first” thanksgiving occurred. People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. Indigenous nations all over the world have celebrations of the harvest that come from very old traditions; for Native peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but every day, for all the gifts of life. To refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as “The First Thanksgiving” disappears Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children.

For other eurocentric, white supremacist myths, please see below. For the corrections to those distortions and lies, please visit this website: 

Myth #2: The people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims.
Myth #3: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.
Myth #4: When the "Pilgrims" landed, they first stepped foot on "Plymouth Rock."
Myth #5: The Pilgrims found corn.
Myth #6: Samoset appeared out of nowhere, and along with Squanto became friends with the Pilgrims. Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and joined them at "The First Thanksgiving."
Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.
Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.
Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.


gkisedtanamoogk said...

...for some Wampanoag people, like my Self, this myth of 'the first thanksgiving' most likely never happen...what did likely take place is premised on attitudes, circumstances, and reality checks that still exist in Plymouth...there was no intention of inviting Wampanoag People in 1621, as evident in succeeding years, the separatist English ('the pilgrims') were not the open-minded, generous, freedom seeking people we are led to believe; to the contrary, they were quite ruthless and violent and never trusted the Wampanoag. This is further evidenced in the brief time following when the second generation Plymouth leadership took charge, their attitudes and belligerency lead to the king Philip's some 40 years later---each year preceding the War, travesty and injustice was a steady brew furthering anger and intolerance. For both Wampanoag and Plymouth, the tragedy of king Philip's war has not brought our two peoples any closer together. So if we are looking for "evidence" to substantiate what took place, examine what we carry in our hearts to date and the reasons behind the National Day of Mourning and how the Wampanoag Program at plimoth plantation carries on....could actually be eye-opening....gkisedtanamoogk

Julian Real said...

With many thanks for adding more truth to the distorted white version of history, gkisedtanamoogk! Your last point is very powerful to me. Please visit any time and comment freely.