November 29, 2020

Thanksgiving, a whitewashed history

By Crystal Mendoza

By: Sherry Zhou

Every year in November, we celebrate Thanksgiving, a celebration of bountiful harvests, the true onset of fall, and a time to gather with our friends and family. Even the name of the holiday, “Thanksgiving,” gives a certain connotation: to give thanks for what we are fortunate to have, whether those are basic needs, the people we love, or the material possessions we own. When we think of Thanksgiving, we evoke images of a cornucopia overflowing with squash, grains, and corn; of decorations in fall colors of gold, yellow, red, brown; of roasted turkeys and cranberry sauce; of stuffing and gravy; of a table replete with dishes; and the comforting pie your grandmother makes.

When we think to what we have learned about the history of Thanksgiving, we remember perhaps from our history lessons that the first Thanksgiving was an exchange of fall harvests between Native Americans and white colonists, who had a pact of peace on that day to celebrate the wealth nature provided them. Not surprisingly, this version of the Thanksgiving story was derived from brief written sources from the colonists and the romanticized versions that were published in many subsequent novels. While some aspects of the “history” we were taught about Thanksgiving were reasonably accurate, this recount glorified much of the backstory and severely white-washed the presence and experiences of the Native American peoples, specifically the Wampanoag people, who were involved in this first “Thanksgiving.” In fact, the origin of the national U.S. holiday for Thanksgiving dates to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a holiday in the middle of the Civil War.

Even now, there are many conflicting details surrounding the original “first Thanksgiving” since it occurred so long ago, in 1621, with few surviving records. Most sources agree that this event was spontaneous in nature, and the Wampanoag people were not invited as guests, though they showed up to the celebration and contributed deer and perhaps other food. It is also agreed that the Wampanoag people were decimated by an epidemic before the arrival of the Pilgrims, and likely sought a peaceful relationship with the settlers, who would provide protection with their weapons in exchange for knowledge of how to survive in the area. Afterwards, peaceful relations between the Wampanoag people and the settlers lasted for decades, until they dissolved somewhere in the 1660s and 1670s after the death of the Wampanoag chief Massasoit who had established the peace treaty.

Today, the Wampanoag people continue to live in some of their ancestral and tribal land in southern New England. Three tribes remain from the sixty-nine that existed pre-contact; the Herring Pond, the Aquinnah, and the Mashpee. In addition to the devastating effect the COVID19 pandemic has had on native communities and peoples such as the Wampanoag people, the Wampanoag have also had to face the possibility of losing their land by revocation of reservation status by the US government during the pandemic.

So, during this time of Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for what we have. Let us be thankful for our families and our friends. Let us be thankful for all the frontline workers who put themselves at risk to keep our country going during the pandemic. Let us be thankful for all the volunteers for COVID19 vaccines, and all the people who are researching COVID19. Let us be thankful for time we had with those who have passed away from COVID19. Let us be thankful for everyone who wears a mask to protect others while protecting themselves. Let us be thankful for the access we have to basic needs and resources such as healthcare. And finally, most importantly, give thanks to everyone around you by keeping your gatherings to those you live with, by wearing a mask, by socially distancing, by recognizing that the history we learnt is likely biased and white-washed, by recognizing the Wampanoag peoples and their part in the first Thanksgiving, and by thinking of ways we can help those in need, especially the people who are frequently forgotten and ignored.

For further resources on the history of the first Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving holiday, and the Wampanoag people, please take a look at the following:

Sherry Zhou is an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Mayo Clinic. She grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and earned her B.S. in Chemistry and Biology at MIT. She enjoys reading, creative writing, baking and cooking, playing piano, and any outdoors sport or activity.  She is passionate about sustainability, working with underprivileged and underserved communities, and encouraging open and safe discussions about controversial issues. 

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