Photo courtesy
It's time to let go of the myth of Thanksgiving and embrace truth, and we must start in schools, Native American educator Sarah Sunshine Manning says.

Manning: Thanksgiving Myth Creates Fairytale of Land Theft, Betrayal, Genocide

Sarah Sunshine Manning

As Thanksgiving approaches, many schools throughout the U.S. are making preparations for the standard, and all too cliché, Thanksgiving Day lessons, and fairy tale-esque Thanksgiving plays.

And more often than not, the school Thanksgiving activities are largely based on what ultimately amounts to myth, created to serve the imaginations of the dominant society, and simultaneously functioning to erase the tragedies of Indigenous nations.

The myth usually goes a little something like this:

Pilgrims came to America, in order to escape religious persecution in England. Living conditions proved difficult in the New World, but thanks to the friendly Indian, Squanto, the pilgrims learned to grow corn, and survive in unfamiliar lands. It wasn’t long before the Indians and the pilgrims became good friends. To celebrate their friendship and abundant harvest, Indians in feathered headbands joined together with the pilgrims and shared in a friendly feast of turkey and togetherness. Happy Thanksgiving. The End.

From this account, the unsuspecting child might assume a number of things. Firstly, they may assume that pilgrims merely settled the New World, innocently, and as a persecuted people, they arrived to America with pure and altruistic intentions. Secondly, children might assume, and rightfully so, that Indians and pilgrims were friends, and that this friendship must have laid the framework for this “great American nation.”

So, what exactly is the harm in this school-sanctioned account of history? Understandably, the untrained eye may not notice the harm in such a myth, as most Americans are victim to the same whitewashed lie as the rest, and dismantling a centuries-old myth certainly does prove challenging.

But the first lesson for educators and adults to digest is the fact that this narrative is egregiously whitewashed and Eurocentric on many levels. Moreover, it is a lie, which serves to rob American children of valuable historical lessons.

Truth be told, this beloved lie was packaged solely for nationalistic consumption when, following the bloody Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Back then, Americans were desperately in need of unity and inspiration. Hence, the myth of the first Thanksgiving was born to inspire and unite.

Beyond the myth, and the seemingly good intentions of Abraham Lincoln (who actually despised Indians) the actual story of pilgrims and indigenous people went down much differently.

As a social science educator, I strongly advocate for the unabridged study of human history; for the many valuable lessons imbedded in the stories of our past. Changing any story, essentially, means short-changing American society from some extremely valuable lessons – lessons that function to plant the seeds of social consciousness and humanitarian evolution.

So let’s take a look at a different version of history; a fuller version, and hopefully, extract some meaningful lessons from our shared past:

One day, the Wampanoag people of the Eastern coast of the Americas noticed unfamiliar people in their homelands.  These unfamiliar people were English pilgrims, coming to a new land which they dubbed “America,” in order to settle and create a new life.

The Wampanoag were initially uneasy with the settlers, but they eventually engaged in a shaky relationship of commerce and exchange. Also, in observing that the pilgrims nearly died from a harsh winter, the Wampanoag stepped in to help.

The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, eventually entered into agreements with the pilgrims, and, on behalf of the Wampanoag Nation, decided to be allies while each nation coexisted in the same space together. At one time, the Wampanoag and pilgrims shared in a meal of wildfowl, deer, and shellfish.

After Massasoit’s death, the Wampanoag nation became weakened as a result of disease contracted from the English. It wasn’t long before the pilgrims began tormenting surrounding tribes, burning entire villages to the ground, while I indigenous men, women, and children lie sleeping.

Uneasy with the growing cruelty, greed, and arrogance of the new people in their homelands, the Wampanoag began to distrust the pilgrims. The pilgrims soon demanded that the Wampanoag submit to them, and give up all their weapons. 

Shortly after, the pilgrims and Wampanoag were at war, and in the end, the pilgrims rose victorious. At the close of the war, the Wampanoag were nearly decimated, and the son of Chief Massasoit, Metacom, was killed by the pilgrims, dismembered, beheaded, and his head impaled on a spear outside of Plymouth. Metacom’s young son was sent to the West Indies as a slave, along with numerous other Wampanoag and surrounding tribes.    

A day of Thanksgiving was declared, and to celebrate, the pilgrims kicked the heads of dead Indigenous peoples around like soccer balls. (This was not the end … )

As indigenous nations throughout America were continually betrayed by European settlers, killed by disease, germ warfare, hunted for bounties, sent overseas as slaves, and ultimately pushed out of their homelands and onto prison camps (now commonly known as reservations), few survived the depressing conditions. As a result of centuries of historical trauma, indigenous nations today have staggering rates of depression, mental health disparities, suicide, and deaths due to alcohol and drugs. Indigenous people continue to struggle to cope with historical trauma, and heal deeply imbedded wounds which stem directly from colonialism. This, still, is not the end.

Worksheet clip "The Real Thanksgiving." This is a worksheet I created for my American Indian history class at Tiospa Zina Tribal School in South Dakota.

The lessons to be gained from the truths of history are many, and conversely, those lessons are lost in whitewashed myths.

While glossing over the very real consequences of colonialism, the mythical version of Thanksgiving creates a fairytale of land theft, betrayal, brutality, and genocide, virtually functioning to erase the very real and traumatic experiences of entire indigenous nations. This phenomena of whitewashing and outright erasure of indigenous history, in many instances, is not only inhumane and oppressive to the indigenous people, but it is also unfair to all Americans who stand to learn from rich and equally tragic history.

Without question, colonialism is great for the colonizer, and disastrous for the colonized. Colonization reduces entire populations, and leaves generational wounds that linger stubbornly for centuries. This is a lesson that all Americans must heed.

As a result of propagating the mythical version of Thanksgiving, American children and adults alike, become confused about history, and moreover the Thanksgiving lie outright prevents a collective American understanding of the contemporary struggles of Native American people today.

Without understanding the 500 years of colonial impact on indigenous people, scores of bigoted attitudes have emerged, as Americans cannot seem to wrap their heads around the many struggles of tribal communities today that stem directly from colonization.

To be sure, the Thanksgiving myth has many consequences, and aside from breeding ignorance and reinforcing bigotry, the myth silences the already marginalized indigenous people, who desperately need to hear, share, and tell our story as a part of the healing process.

It is time to let go of the myth and embrace truth, and we must start in schools, where young children look to their teachers with inquisitive eyes as the all-knowing authorities.

As educational institutions, schools must be progressive in bravely moving toward truth, while moving away from any semblance of ongoing myth-sanctioning.

This change is long overdue, and all of our children deserve truth, meaningful lessons, and a robust dose of humanitarian development. And the great news is: our entire world stands to benefit from it.

Depending on the age of students, different degrees of the story can and should be told. Educators can find ideas here.

And conversely, the myth, the school plays, and the story of happy Indians and friendly pilgrims needs to be abandoned, wholesale. This leveling out of myth creates space for new conversations and lessons of unity, and deeper understandings of what it truly means to be a good human being, and that is something to be thankful for.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
There is no question that America has many, many dark chapters in its history. Nobody wins at war whether it was a thousand years ago or today. The innocent will always suffer. As for me and my family being of Apache and Navajo heritage, our gathering at Thanksgiving is not based upon the first Thanksgiving. It is to be thankful for our many blessings that was and is from our Creator. We are thankful for those who have gone on before and passed their knowledge and affection and helped us find ourselves in whatever form or religion we choose to follow. We, like many other tribal members, have those who choose the traditional teachings and its religious ceremonies, and then we have those who believe in the Bible's teachings. We learn to be respectful of the many choices and maybe do not necessarily believe in their way, but none is wrong. Only our Creator knows what is right and what is wrong and the teaching is that we respect and treat one another like brother and sister. I will say that it always felt a bit uncomfortable when my non-Indian teacher told us our class of mixed races that the Indians and Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving. Everyone seemed to be look at me and my not knowing what was going through their minds was unsettling. I still don't like it, so I am much more at ease when my family and I give thanks for what our Creator provided including our lovingly departed family and close friends who we carry with us - always. May your gathering on Thanksgiving holiday be one of warmth, affection, great feasting and a renewing in the spirit of hope, faith and dreams.

John Pratt
John Pratt
Submitted by John Pratt on
Pilgrims are being confused with the Puritans who came later. It is an important distinction. It would be like saying one tribe did something when another actually did it. The Thanksgiving that was declared in which heads were kicked about was likely in 1637 after the Pequot War. If a Thankgiving was called after the defeat of Metacomet in the mid 1670's it was likely because the colonists were glad to be alive. The war with Metacomet had cost 600 colonists their lives including women and children. This at a time when not so many colonists were in New England. Metacomet was not killed by Pilgrims but by a member of the Pocasset tribe. History is a complex web that is not always clear. Teaching the truth of a matter is important.

laenshee's picture
Submitted by laenshee on
Metacomet used tribal alliances to coordinate efforts to push European colonists out of New England. Many of the native tribes in the region wanted to push out the colonists following conflicts over land use, diminished game as a consequence of expanding European settlement, and other tensions. As the colonists brought their growing numbers to bear, Metacomet and some of his followers took refuge in the great Assowamset Swamp in southern Massachusetts. He held out for a time, with his family and remaining followers. Hunted by a group of rangers led by Captain Benjamin Church, he was fatally shot by a praying Indian named John Alderman, on August 12, 1676, in the Miery Swamp near Mount Hope in Bristol, Rhode Island. After his death, his wife and nine-year-old son were captured and sold as slaves in Bermuda. Metacomet's head was mounted on a pike at the entrance to Fort Plymouth, where it remained for more than two decades. His body was cut into quarters and hung in trees. Alderman was given Metacomet's right hand as a reward. Yes John Pratt, teaching the truth of a matter is important.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
The "Hits" keep on coming November 26, 2015, 06:00 am Obama: Syrian refugees are like pilgrims on the Mayflower By Bradford Richardson Obviously the current Obama administration is selling a MYTH on top of the writer's called out "myth". It doesn't take Year 1600 politics to 'push-out' American Indians anymore if YOU consider the US Federal dollars to support-aide the Economic refugees. 2015 and into the future, obviously Indian Afffairs will be taking the HIT (for less federal funding and/or fighting for 'scrapes'. The sooner young idealists and so-called activists realize that living in the past doesn't put food on the table, than dealing with the present and the future, Indian affairs and Indian legitimate indian concerns will be "left out" or "one dinner chair short" when the THanksGiving Feast is celebrated and given. This time Indian affairs will be looking from outside in (through the window) to the Pilgrim feast with muslim, hispanic, black, alternative persuasion/trans. All the interests will be represented, where will the Indian beside living in Year 1620…..

Christopher Steven Day
Christopher Ste...
Submitted by Christopher Ste... on
We might as well talk about the nasty history of colonialism in America and whether this must affect how we go about getting together for this holiday. So while I share the author's interest in teaching a correct version of the history, however uncomfortable this makes us, I don't share the commitment to making the holiday of Thanksgiving a different sort of holiday, like a Holocaust Memorial Day. I would not be opposed to creating a day of remembrance for this purpose, but I don't see the need to press Thanksgiving into its service. Here's my view, put slightly provocatively: I no more think that celebrating Thanksgiving has to be seen as celebrating the decimation of Amerindian populations than I think celebrating Easter has to be associated with the lynching of Jesus by a mob of angry Jews. I can celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that doesn't tacitly endorse the European conquest of America and I can celebrate Easter in a way that that doesn't condemn Jewish people for killing my supposed savior. I think the historical facts behind many holidays are not even relevant to their observances, and in some cases it's only an excessive commitment to cultural sensitivity, or else a runaway game of self-flagellation under the specter of white privilege, that would have us again celebrate with these historical facts in mind.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
In a country that touts, "With liberty and justice for all," there should be no changing history to "protect America." This country has seen the oppression and discrimination leveled against nearly every minority within its borders. African-Americans were held as slaves, the Chinese built the railroads connecting the country, but were rewarded with the Chinese Exclusion Act which denied them immigration rights. The anti-Italianism sentiment that was prevalent during the latter part of the 19th century occurred for precisely the same reason for anti-(illegal) immigration today. After the Civil War Italians came here to work mostly in agriculture and factories and found themselves targets of the very same racism that is occurring against Mexicans today. America has made itself on the backs of ethnic minorities that have worked in deplorable conditions only to be denied that, "liberty and justice for all."