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How to talk to your kids about Thanksgiving and the Native American genocide

An open letter for Americans to consider the roots of Thanksgiving

Dear reader,

For some, Thanksgiving is mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and turkey. For others, it’s just another monolith reminder of the Native American Genocide. 

Elementary schools may still put on pageants representing the Charlie Brown version of the holiday, which entails the Pilgrims welcoming the Native Americans’ help with open arms and thankful mouths. From then on everyone got along happily ever after. 

Except, that is simply untrue. 

Thanksgiving is not a fairytale of everlasting peace but rather a dark tale to serve as a precursor to the treatment of Indigenous people. 

The History of Thanksgiving

According to National Geographic, Virginia settlers celebrated a Thanksgiving in 1619, which predates the commonly known 1621 event by Plymouth settlers. And even before that, Spanish settlers and the Seloy tribe commemorated their union with a Mass and dinner in 1565, according to the National Parks Service

Another popular origin date is 1637, when John Winthrop, Massachusetts colony governor, anointed colonial soldiers who butchered Pequot men, women and children. 

However, the most common myth comes from Abraham Lincoln’s telling of the harvest. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit and the English settlers in Plymouth banded together to fight against the French and other indigenous tribes in the area. They celebrated their unity in the “original thanksgiving,” but over time the relationship faltered. 

The more English colonizers who arrived in Plymouth took the land from the Wampanoag and disrupted their way of life. Not only did the colonists destroy the land but diseases also spread rampantly through the Native people. 

Eventually, Massasoit’s son, Metacomet or “King Philip,” inherited his leadership and the relationship crumbled. His men were slaughtered for the murder of John Sassamon and King Philip’s war began. 

War ensued. The death rate, according to The Historical Journal of Massachusetts, reported half of the Native Americans in New England perished and 30% of the English settlers. 

The end of the war resulted in King Philip’s head being displayed on a spike for 25 years. The son of the man who had been heralded as a Thanksgiving hero was slaughtered and his dismemberment was celebrated for half a decade. 

Thanksgiving Today

It’s hard to ignore the discussions of racial inequality in America today. Indigenous people are often not the forefront of them, but Indigenous rights are some of the most significant casualties of mistreatment of people of color. 

Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) have organized The National Day of Mourning. The day protests the genocided and suffering of Native peoples today. 

The day is aimed to educate the public about the Wampanoag people and the common misrepresentation of Native people. Their mission combines both contemporary and historical plights of Native Americans. 

Talking to your kids about Thanksgiving

An easy way to introduce your family or the children in your life to the true atrocities of Thanksgiving is to become involved in organizations like UAINE. 

On November 25th, the UAINE will hold the 52 National Day of Mourning at Cole’s Hill, Plymouth Massachusetts. There will be a march throughout the historic district of Plymouth. 

There will also be a livestream of the speakers.  Watching these speeches either along with or in place of the Macy’s Day Parade is one way to begin honoring Indigenous rights.

Another way to educate young ones about Natives, is simply checking to see who’s land you live on. You can check Native Land Digital to see who’s land you are living on. 

The most important thing is to educate the younger generation better than we were. They say history repeats itself, but wouldn’t it be nice if that were not true this time around. 

Ensuring Indigenous rights is dependent on continuing to spread awareness of the lack of representation there is for Native people. 

It is absolutely pertinent that we continue to address the fact that America is stolen land. The future is bright so long as we use all the tools at our disposal to prevent further oppression of underrepresented communities. 

As an Indigenous woman, I urge everyone to reflect on the true history of Thanksgiving this holiday season. 

Rotting flesh only becomes more unpleasant, much like ignored history. Do your part in addressing your privilege. 

Season’s Greetings,

Your favorite Native American Culturas Contributor 

Sophia Ungaro
Sophia Rose Ungaro is Culturas resident writing intern. Ungaro hails from San Pedro, California. Growing up with a Navajo/Meztizo mother and a Sicilian father has given Ungaro a unique perspective on the world. In 2021 Ungaro will graduate from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in Journalism. Her beats are race, pop culture, and entertainment.
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