The Real Thanksgiving Story

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on MSA’s literary arts blog, curated by junior and senior literary arts students.

Growing up, you probably heard the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration. The story has slight variations depending on who tells it and where it is told, but these excerpts from a version on http://www.apples4theteacher.com/, a website that provides resources commonly used by elementary school teachers, are representative of the general idea of the story most Americans were told in their youth. I’ll show you a statement made in this short story called “The First Thanksgiving” by Nora Smith, and then, I’ll give a brief description of the actual events that took place. TRIGGER WARNING: A certain part of this article will discuss the intense subjects of murder and assault; please read with caution and keep this warning in mind as you navigate this post.

Some of the Pilgrim fathers, with brave Captain Myles Standish at their head, went on shore to see if they could find any houses or white people. 

     Calling Myles Standish brave is an interesting choice; I suppose one might consider the military advisor brave, if their definition of bravery is only characterized by one showing sheer undantedness in the wake of brutal attacks on whom that person perceives to be an enemy.  After an indigenous person named Corbitant challenged a treaty established between the pilgrims and a group of other natives, Standish planned an attack on the shelter in which Corbitant was believed to be sleeping. As frightened Pokanokets attempted to escape the terrifying scene, Standish’s men outside fired their muskets.Some friendly Indians had visited the Pilgrims during the winter, and Captain Myles Standish, with several of his men, had returned the visit. In another instance, he and three other men of Plymouth stabbed Pecksout, a Massachusett warrior and leader of a group he found to be threatening, and put three other Massachusett warriors to death for their association.  Standish returned to Plymouth with a man’s head.  A bold man, sure, but brave? I don’t think so.

One of the kind Indians was called Squanto, and he came to stay with the Pilgrims, and showed them how to plant their corn, and their peas and wheat and barley.

     Squanto, who is often referred to as “the friendly Indian,” was also called Tisquantum, but historians concluded that neither is probably his real name. He belonged to the Patuxet tribe, which was a branch of the Wampanoag Confederacy. At some point during his youth, Squanto was sold into slavery in Europe by English explorers who captured him and many other Native Americans. When the Pilgrims arrived, he himself was a prisoner of the Wampanoag, and he served as a translator. He proved himself to be an expert on resources and taught the group of Europeans how to cultivate crops that would help them survive the next winter. However, many say he did not simply assist them out of good-heartedness. He was described as someone who “sought his own ends and played his own game.” He is said to have exploited the influence his fluency in English provided him, often demanding favors and making threats.

Kind as the Indians were, you would have been very much frightened if you had seen them; and the baby Oceanus, who was a year old then, began to cry at first whenever they came near him. They were dressed in deerskins, and some of them had the furry coat of a wild cat hanging on their arms. Their long black hair fell loose on their shoulders, and was trimmed with feathers or fox-tails. They had their faces painted in all kinds of strange ways, some with black stripes as broad as your finger all up and down them. But whatever they wore, it was their very best, and they had put it on for the Thanksgiving party.

     This entire excerpt has a condescending tone that accompanies many white Americans in their retelling of the Thanksgiving story. Phrases like “Kind as the Indians were, you would have been very much afraid if you had seen them…” and “But whatever they wore, it was their very best…”  are gross and belittling, to say the least. The person who wrote this clearly tried to diminish the problematic nature of these statements by describing the Natives positively before or after they were made. The entire point of this version of the story is to perpetuate the idea that the natives were friendly and eager to help the pilgrims, but somehow, like so many before her, the writer uses harmful, incorrect stereotypes about Indigenous people to tell the story. Notice how unnecessary it is to include those details and consider how little they add to the context of the Thanksgiving story. It plants a seed in young children’s brains and grows a predisposition towards Native Americans; they are taught to see this group of people as “frightening.”

     All throughout the text, the word “Indian” is used to identify Native Americans. They have been inaccurately described as Indians since the Pilgrims arrived in America. Christopher Columbus was under the impression that he sailed across the Indian Ocean and therefore referred to the residents of the land as “Indians.” It is profoundly ignorant to use this term to describe Indigenous Americans, and it is extremely harmful to teach children to use it as a way to describe someone with that identity.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myles_Standish

https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-11-17/native-americans-get-chance-tell-their-side-pilgrim-story

https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/native/homepage.htm

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