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  • Writer's pictureDani Brinberg

The Thanksgiving Controversy

Thanksgiving is a staple American holiday, and it is a great tradition for many reasons. It is an opportunity for families and friends to come together once a year and celebrate everything they are thankful for. And yet, Thanksgiving has a lot of controversy surrounding the story of its origin. You probably know the widely-accepted tale of the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to share a meal in the New World. However, taking a deeper look into the relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans in the 1600’s leads us to question whether this story is the complete truth.

The Thanksgiving narrative that we all know, celebrates the anniversary of the classic tale of what happened in Plymouth in 1621: the accepting Native Americans, specifically the Wampanoag tribe, who welcomed the courageous Pilgrims (straight from the Mayflower) onto their land with open arms. They then had a friendly dinner with them, and magically disappeared.

You probably know from history class that the Native Americans’ relationship with the Pilgrims was far more complicated than that. So what exactly are the questionable elements of the Thanksgiving story? For starters, the story makes it seem like history began for the Native Americans when the English settlers arrived. The Wampanoag’s culture and way of life leading up to English colonization is disregarded in the Thanksgiving story, and is only brought up when relevant to the Pilgrim’s story. Fifty years later, after decades of tensions that began when the English settlers stepped foot in the New World, the Wampanoag tribe and English were at war with each other.

This tension surely existed at that first Thanksgiving -- the result of the fact that the English wanted the Native American land. Another major contributor to the conflict between the two groups was the disease the Pilgrims brought from England and spread to their new Native Americans “friends”. Such diseases ended up killing 90% of Native Americans across the country.

So what is true and what is false about the story we’ve all been told about the first Thanksgiving? It is true that a member of the Wampanoag tribe reached out to the Pilgrims to arrange a dinner as an attempt to form an alliance with the Englishmen. However, this alliance was most likely the Wampanoags’ attempt to avoid a war that would likely result in a loss of land for the Native Americans.

So, yes, the two groups did have a peaceful meal together, and it did involve a lot of food and a celebration of the harvest. However, the intentions behind it were not simply “let’s all be friends,” as the story goes. Overall, there are many flaws in our modern-day perception of the first Thanksgiving. By leaving out key details in the story, we are glossing over the suffering Native Americans had to endure when the colonists came, so it is important that we educate ourselves on what actually happened.

Even though the true Thanksgiving origin story is overlooked by many Americans, the gratitude-themed tradition that has come out of it is a good one. It’s also definitely important to mention that the food is delicious. Spending time with family is great, but the food obviously also plays a central role in the American love of Thanksgiving. At the First Thanksgiving, the Native Americans and the Pilgrims actually ate a lot of the same foods that are common in modern-day Thanksgiving meals. They had berries, pumpkin, fruit, and waterfowl (we substitute turkey). We can thank the combination of Native American knowledge of the harvest and hunting skills and English/European tools for the amazing food that we get to eat each November.

Over the years, Thanksgiving has become a day for celebrating what we are grateful for in our lives with the people we love most. It is a day to celebrate togetherness and the abundance we enjoy in a similar fashion to the Wampanoags and the English, with plenty of food and plenty of people. Thanksgiving is also great in that it can be enjoyed by all Americans, regardless of religious affiliation. Parades and gatherings around the country connect people of different backgrounds and cultures through their mutual love of the holiday. This year, while we may not be able to gather with family and friends, we can still be grateful for all that we do have, which is a lot.


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