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November Is Native American History Month: Part 3 Do Native Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving? It’s Complicated

by David Engle | Nov 24, 2020 | 5 min read


In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. Each year since 1994, the same types of proclamations have been made, including this year, when President Donald Trump announced November as Native American History Month. This is a time to learn more about, and appreciate, the many cultures our country has seen, including the original inhabitants of our land. In this multi-part blog series, we’ll take a look at the history, heritage, and culture of Native Americans and learn why they’re so important to the history–as well as the present and future–of the United States. Our first installment focused on the history of Native Americans and key events that occurred along the way. Part 2 was a lighter look at celebrities you may not have known were part Native. In this post, we’ll take a look at Thanksgiving Day through the eyes of Native Americans and learn why it’s a time of conflict and not necessarily celebration.

Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims and local Indian tribes gathered to celebrate the harvest with a feast. It’s a little bit more nuanced than that, however. Let’s take a look at a few questions to better understand how the “first” Thanksgiving actually unfolded and whether Native Americans celebrate the holiday.

What’s the Pilgrims’ story? The stories you’ve probably heard about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock are true. The Pilgrims–separatists who fled England for Holland (and ultimately North America) to escape religious persecution–did arrive on the Mayflower in what’s now Massachusetts in 1620 and settled in that area. However, they suffered quite a bit during their first year in present-day America. Approximately half of the Pilgrims who made the voyage died and the rest were left to scavenge for any food they could find. That was, until they met Squanto.

Who was Squanto? He was a Patuxet Indian, one of the tribes that formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Squanto and his tribe lived in the Plymouth area until he and others were kidnapped sometime around 1614, sailed to Spain, and sold into slavery. In 1615, he was purchased by monks, who allowed him to make his way to England by 1615. There he worked for a shipbuilder and learned the English language before returning to his New England homeland in 1619. Squanto was met with devastation upon his arrival–his entire family and tribe had been killed by a terrible plague. A couple of years later, Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims, whom he taught how to fish and hunt in order to survive in New England. His kindness, generosity, and willingness to help the Pilgrims learn how to plant and grow crops resulted in a friendship between him and the Pilgrims.

What was the first Thanksgiving in 1621 actually like? Contrary to popular belief, actually, this technically was not the first true Thanksgiving celebration. In fact, Native American tribes had been celebrating the autumn harvest for years. This one was different, however. By most accounts, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford invited Massasoit and his Wampanoag Confederacy to the colony’s feast to celebrate Thanksgiving. Massasoit and several dozen warriors from the group came bearing food…but it wasn’t turkey or mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce or stuffing. Rather, they brought fish, venison, eel, wild fowl, clams, oysters, and other food we generally don’t associate with Thanksgiving today. Massasoit and the warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days, marking a much longer feast than we currently celebrate.

What happened in the following years? Squanto passed away the following year, 1622. He wasn’t alive to witness the massacre that occurred 15 years later, when combined forces from Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies burned and killed somewhere between 400 and 700 members of the Pequot tribe near what’s now the Mystic River in Connecticut. Whoever wasn’t killed was enslaved (mostly captured women and children) and sent to the West Indies and Bermuda. Similar violent incidents and displacements occurred across New England, decimating the Native population over the ensuing decades.

How do Native Americans see Thanksgiving? This is where it gets complicated. Many Natives do not view Thanksgiving as a day of celebration at all. In fact, just the opposite; many see it as a day of mourning. To understand this point of view, imagine yourself as a Native, living freely and peacefully on your land. Along come settlers, who the local Natives were kind enough to help and welcome, only to be repaid years later by having their villages destroyed, their family and friends murdered, and their people forced off their land. It’s a somber occasion for several Native Americans, and understandably so. For decades, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) have held a rally and a day of mourning on November 22 to remember the difficult events of the past. According to the UAINE, “Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.” Personally speaking, I now better understand the grief and difficulty that comes with Thanksgiving for Native Americans.

The fascinating thing is, not all Native Americans view Thanksgiving this way. In fact, quite a few Native Americans embrace the meaning of the holiday, though not necessarily the events that occurred during the 17th century and beyond. For Natives, Thanksgiving isn’t simply a holiday–it’s a way of life, every single day. Giving thanks is a cornerstone of Native heritage and culture; to these Natives, Thanksgiving Day is just another way to celebrate family, community, and the gifts that they have. You can even say that Natives created the meaning of Thanksgiving, as the Wampanoag Indians selflessly brought the food to the feast and taught the settlers how to sustain themselves, asking for nothing in return.

Native American Heritage Day: Most people aren’t aware (I wasn’t either) that in 2009, President Barack Obama designated the day after Thanksgiving (known to most Americans as Black Friday, the day for the best holiday sales) as Native American Heritage Day, a day to, as President Obama said, “understand the rich culture, tradition, and history of Native Americans and their status today, and to appreciate the contributions that First Americans have made and will continue to make to our Nation.” However, adding to the complicated situation surrounding Native Americans and Thanksgiving, not all Native tribes were a fan of President Obama’s proclamation. The bill was officially supported by only 184 out of 567 federally recognized tribes. Why? Because the day chosen for Native American Heritage Day is one of the biggest commercial days of the year (Black Friday), leaving this important day for Natives as something of an afterthought.

It’s interesting to think about Thanksgiving from a different perspective, and I think that’s something that’s missing as a whole in society today. While we don’t necessarily have to change the way we might celebrate a day like Thanksgiving, it certainly can’t hurt to think about why we celebrate Thanksgiving. Personally, I can’t recall even one instance where I gave thanks to anyone from the 1600s before sitting down to a delicious meal with my family. I prefer to take the approach that Native Americans do every day–be thankful for my family, friends, their health, and for what I have in general. But this Thanksgiving, I will take time to reflect upon what the day meant and still means for Natives across the country, to better understand the struggles they’ve faced and still face, to recognize that Native Americans were the inspiration and driving force behind the first Thanksgiving and that they continue to inspire by how they give thanks every single day. And for that inspiration, I am truly thankful.

Stay tuned for our final post about Native American History Month. And, of course, check out Elephango, our education partner with plenty more resources on the history of Native Americans!


David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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