For the diminished Native American population, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning while most Americans celebrate it as a day of joy.
Just over four hundred years ago, in 1620, American colonists, or Pilgrims as they're called, sailing on the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Bay, in present-day Massachusetts. A year later, these Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving.
That famous overseas voyage was no temporary trip. Rather, the aim was to relocate permanently in the New World. Just like the Old Testament Jews regarded themselves as chosen people destined to live in Palestine, the colonists considered America as their New Jerusalem.
But that belief came with a cost - namely, the destruction of Native American tribes that had lived on the continent for thousands of years.
Every year, on the last Thursday of November, that tragic history is celebrated as Thanksgiving in the US.
What's seen as a joyous celebration by most Americans is likely a horrible day for many Native Americans. It reminds them of a collective tragedy. Little did their forebears know that welcoming white European colonists would result in the near-total eradication of Native American tribes and culture.
The Pilgrims espoused Puritanical Christian views and sought new lands to practice their faith freely. Upon arriving on American shores they faced dangerous weather conditions. They wouldn't have survived the harsh winter of 1621 had the Wampanoag tribe not helped them plant corn and other crops. They also taught the Pilgrims how to use fish remains as fertiliser and showed them ways to survive the bitter winter chill.
Despite the help of the Wampanoag people, half of the new arrivals in the Plymouth Colony died during that freezing winter. According to US historical records, disease and the lack of food contributed to the heavy death toll.
Despite receiving assistance from the Wampanoag people, the surviving colonists endeavored to dominate the natives. Over the years the Pilgrims took their lands and contributed to their genocide. Members of native tribes steadily diminished over the generations, which has contributed to the disgust many indigenous people feel about Thanksgiving.
How the first Thanksgiving happened
According to white Americans, the first Thanksgiving marked the first successful harvest the Pilgrims celebrated in the New World. While official US accounts say the harvest celebration was organised by both White colonists and the Wampanoag tribe, experts believe that the natives were not initially invited to the event.
Also, in a misunderstanding, natives mistook celebratory gunfire by the Pilgrims as hostility toward them. The native tribe arrived at the scene of the harvest celebration at which point white colonists said they had no intention of attacking them. After that, the Wampanoag people brought their own food and joined the colonists in celebration of the harvest. That first celebration in 1621 then turned into a yearly festival.
But the native tribes never predicted the colonists would eventually turn their guns against them.
Wampanoag people numbered around 30,000 to 100,000 in the early 17th century, according to different estimates. Besides getting killed in numerous armed campaigns waged by European colonists, they also died from diseases brought by the so-called Pilgrims.
The numbers of indigenous peoples on the continent continued to diminish over the centuries. Today only 2,800 from the Wampanoag tribe exist. Almost none of them like to celebrate Thanksgiving.
“We don’t acknowledge the American holiday of Thanksgiving … it’s a marginalization and mistelling of our story,” said Paula Peters, a member of the Wampanoag nation, who is also a writer and educator on Native American history.
This sentiment doesn’t merely apply to the Wampanoag people. Almost the entire indigenous population of all North America was wiped out by colonialism. Prior to Europeans coming to the New World, the entire continent had been completely populated by Indian tribes, whose ancestors were estimated to have arrived in North America at least 15,000 years ago.
Currently, Native Americans, who number around five million, are only 1.6 percent of the entire US population.
A misunderstood celebration
For centuries in the US, Thanksgiving has been presented as a holiday celebrating brotherhood between different people of different backgrounds. But Native Americans see little signs of this brotherhood throughout history.
“For us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization. Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures,” Darius Coombs, another member of the Wampanoag nation, told The Washington Post. Coombs is also the tribe’s cultural outreach lead.
But each Thanksgiving those grievances fall on deaf ears as millions of American families happily devour turkey feasts.
According to experts, there was no turkey during the first Thanksgiving.
Despite those misconceptions, Thanksgiving is regarded as a positive holiday by many Americans. This even includes newcomers to the US, many of whom feel that celebrating a distinctly American holiday like Thanksgiving helps them integrate into US society.
The Wall Street Journal, a leading US newspaper, publishes the same opinion article every year in late November. It’s titled The Desolate Wilderness and it celebrates the Pilgrims’ overseas voyage by recounting the events of 1620 from the point of view of the American colonists.
Passing the Atlantic Ocean was already a harrowing experience for the Pilgrims, but there was even more to come, the article says.
“Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? And what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not,” the Pilgrims records say.