[Ed. Note: A version of this post first appeared on the blog of the National Museum of the American Indian.]
In my earliest memories of elementary school, I remember being asked to bring a brown paper sack to class so that it could be decorated and worn as part of the Indian costume used to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was also instructed to make a less-than-authentic headband with Indian designs and feathers to complete this outfit. I now know this was wrong.
The Thanksgiving Indian costume that we made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the First Thanksgiving popularized in American culture. The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery.
The Thanksgiving myth has done much damage and harm to the cultural self esteem of generations of Indian people by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy.
This is a great concern to Native parents. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth. And, while I agree that elementary school children who celebrate the First Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school graduation.
Let’s begin with Squanto, a Patuxet, one of more than 50 tribes that formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Around 1614, when he was perhaps 30, Squanto was kidnapped along with others of his people and taken across the Atlantic to Malaga, Spain, where they were sold into slavery.
Monks in Spain bought Squanto, shared their faith with him, and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615. There, he worked for shipbuilder John Slany and became proficient in English. In 1619 he returned to his homeland by joining an exploring expedition along the New England coast. When he arrived at the village where he had been raised, his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a devastating plague.
What about the Pilgrims?
The separatists who fled from England to Holland seeking to escape religious persecution, and who later booked passage to North America, are now called "Pilgrims," though Americans did not widely use the term until the 1870s. In November 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present day Provincetown Harbor.
After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who set out from Europe on the Mayflower had perished. The Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves at Corn Hill.
Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621, became friends with them, and taught them how to hunt and fish in order to survive in New England. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and how to plant gourds around the corn so that the vines could climb the cornstalks. The Pilgrims made Squanto an interpreter and emissary between the English and Wampanoag Confederacy.
What really happened at the First Thanksgiving in 1621?
The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of Thanksgiving. The New England tribes already had autumn harvest feasts of thanksgiving. To the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the Creator.
In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. Massasoit and the ninety warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days.
Squanto died in 1622, but Massasoit outlived the era of relative peace in colonial New England. On May 26, 1637, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned near the present day Mystic River in Connecticut by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook colonies, and Narragansett and Mohegan allies.
Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated 300,000 Indians died by violence. Even more were displaced in New England over the next few decades.
The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.
Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday to get together with family and friends and share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households.
It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday, rather than as National American Indian Heritage Day.
Dennis W. Zotigh is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendent of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. He works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.