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Learning the Truth About Thanksgiving and America’s Origin Story

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris's, The First Thanksgiving, 1621 (image altered)
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris's The First Thanksgiving, 1621, is a popular image of the first Thanksgiving. This is NOT how it happened.

With the anticipation of a mouth-watering feast and time away from the office to lounge with family and friends, Americans come together for Thanksgiving. It’s the holiday where conversations about our national origins abound. But much of the US’s widely accepted origin story is skewed by the lens of settler colonialism and has silenced the voices of Native Americans. With Native American Heritage Month, observed every November since 1990, we can reflect on the history and contributions of Indigenous peoples. “Writing US History from Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual narrative,” historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz tells us in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. “That narrative is wrong—not in facts, dates and details—but rather in essence.”

That very consensual narrative has fabricated myths about Native Americans that remain with us today. “We believe that people are hungry for a more accurate history and eager to abandon the misperceptions that result in racism toward Native Americans,” Dunbar-Ortiz and journalist Dina Gilio-Whitaker state in “All the Real Indians Died Off.” That’s why they’ve cast a sobering light on the national fables and miseducation we’ve inherited about the birth of this country and its treatment of its Indigenous peoples. They’ve also uncovered history that isn’t acknowledged or well known by the general public.

Here are some examples.

Thanksgiving is a US holiday that celebrates the national origin myth. The purported celebratory meal of the “Pilgrims” did not entail the giving of food as a gift between the Native Americans and the colonizers. Native Americans were there as servants, and their foods—the corn, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and turkey that have become staples in today’s holiday meal—were confiscated. The idea of the gift-giving Indian helped establish what would become the United States, which Dunbar-Ortiz calls “an insidious smoke screen meant to obscure the fact that the very existence of the country is a result of the looting of an entire continent and its resources.” Protesting against the holiday, the United American Indians of New England have held a “National Day of Mourning” at Plymouth Rock since 1970.

Of course, we can’t forget about Christopher Columbus. The fallacy of Christopher Columbus discovering America is the United States’ foundational myth that celebrates European imperialism. Moreover, it omits Columbus’s role as the originator of the transatlantic slave trade. As Dunbar-Ortiz explains, the national holiday that honors his arrival to the Americas actually celebrates settler colonialism, not Columbus per se. That’s why, in an open letter she wrote to former President Obama, petitioning him to change the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she states that “it’s time for the United States government to make a gesture toward acknowledgment of its colonial past and a commitment to decolonization.”

Reservations are creations of a foreign legal system, not gifts to Native Americans from the US government. Indigenous peoples ceded their lands to the United States, (often under duress, or had them forcibly taken through treaties), reserving large tracts for themselves. Some were reserved by executive order or congressional acts. We saw the continuation of the US’s colonial land-grabbing legacy in action in last year’s occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. As Dunbar-Ortiz points out, the “public lands” occupied by Ryan and Ammon Bundy and the other militiamen are in fact annexed Indigenous sacred sites that “need to be returned to the stewardship of Native nations from whom they were illegally seized.”

Europeans considered Indigenous peoples savage before they’d even encountered them, by virtue of the fact that they weren’t Christians. Yet studies of military tactics reveal far greater brutality among Europeans than among Native Americans. This mindset justified settler violence, with the language of Native American savagery encoded by Thomas Jefferson into the Declaration of Independence. One of the military tactics used against Native Americans was scalp hunting. The term ‘redskins,’ as Dunbar-Ortiz explains, comes from the name settlers gave to “the mutilated and bloody corpses they left in the wake of scalp hunts...This way of war, forged in the first century of colonization—destroying Indigenous villages and fields, killing civilians, ranging, and scalp hunting—became the basis for the wars against the Indigenous across the continent into the nineteenth century.”

Is Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” one of your favorite songs? Dunbar-Ortiz has the back-story of another genocide campaign against Native Americans that informs his lyrics. In 1866, Congress created two all–African American cavalry regiments that came to be called the ‘Buffalo Soldiers.’ Their explicit purpose was to invade Indigenous lands in the West and ethnically cleanse them for Anglo settlement. The haunting Bob Marley song ‘Buffalo Soldier’ captures the tragedy of the colonial experiences in the US: “...said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for America.”

Today there are over 500 federally recognized Indigenous communities and nations, comprising nearly three million people. These are the descendants of the once fifteen million people who inhabited this land. These numbers speak to the settler colonial agenda that sought to eliminate Native Americans from this country. In spite of all attempts throughout the centuries against their lives and livelihood, Native Americans have been resilient and dynamic. 

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker have done us an invaluable service, providing us with the history and resource material we need to disabuse ourselves of the false narratives that have distorted our understanding of American history. Our knowledge of the past helps us understand our present.

For those interested in learning more about Indigenous history, culture, and resistance movements, take a look at these recommendations from Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s list

Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s list


About the Authors 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @rdunbaro. 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA. She is the co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of “All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.