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Why it is Important to Understand the Controversial History of Thanksgiving

By Maya Meade, Blogger

Every year, Thanksgiving comes and goes, a gluttonous amount of food is consumed and memories are made without people really thinking about why the holiday is celebrated in the first place — and why some people choose not to celebrate it at all. A lot of the Thanksgiving education received at a young age in the United States is not entirely accurate and is glorified to be a day of feasting shared between colonists and Native Americans. This is not exactly what happened.

It is true that The Mayflower indeed brought Pilgrims from England to North America where they landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 and set up a colony. A year later, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering and there were members of the Wampanoag tribe present. This harvest festival is understood to be the origin of modern day Thanksgiving.

In the 1830s, New Englanders looked back on the events and declared it the “first Thanksgiving” because it resembled their version of the holiday. Then in 1863, President Lincoln said the holiday was a sort of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. These two declarations of the “first Thanksgiving” are not quite accurate considering Native Americans and other European societies had been holding celebrations for successful harvests for centuries.

Illustrations by Macey Elder

In addition to the discrepancies of when the first Thanksgiving really happened, it has also transformed into a white-washed holiday scattered with cultural appropriation. Children are often educated on the history of Thanksgiving through reenacting the aforementioned harvest meal. Thus, they are often asked to recreate Native American headdresses and clothes out of cheap feathers and paper which results in large groups of non-Native children uniformed in a thoughtless interpretation of Native garments. Not only is it an injustice to inaccurately educate children on the Native American people of the country they live in, but it is also incredibly offensive to misrepresent and appropriate an entire culture. 

Similar to the controversy surrounding Columbus Day, it is often argued that Thanksgiving was founded on the basis of unjust colonization and genocide. The false narratives surrounding indigenous people in the United States are damaging for children to see and turns human beings and their culture into cheap costumes in the classroom for a few days leading up to the holiday. There is an ethical obligation for educators to continue to teach about the history of this country in an honest way that rejects the harmful stereotypes that have been placed on Native Americans for years.

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