What Native Americans Want You To Know About Thanksgiving This Holiday

Thanksgiving might arguably be the biggest holiday of the year for most Americans, but it is not a day of celebration for everyone.

For many Native American tribes across the country the day is one of mourning and reflection.

But for some, Thanksgiving is also a chance to raise awareness about issues affecting Native American people and also the "back-story to what really happened to establish a colony," according to Mashpee Wampanoag woman, Paula Peters.

"The holiday is based on some real mythology around the first Thanksgiving," she tells Newsweek.

native american woman closeup photo
A woman wearing face paint looks on during the National Day of Mourning, on Thanksgiving day, November 25, 2021 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Thanksgiving is not a celebration for all Native Americans. Bryan R Smith/AFP

"We see this as an opportunity to teach people the real history of the holiday... and to educate about our experiences of injustice which continues as there are so many different issues that are faced by tribes across the country."

Thanksgiving—the annual holiday observed on the fourth Thursday of every November— is popularly thought to have started when the Pilgrims from England joined the Native Americans they encountered to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

The first three-day harvest celebration held in Plymouth Colony, which is found in modern day Massachusetts, in 1621 is thought to be the first American Thanksgiving, according to Dennis Zotigh in the Smithsonian Magazine.

The colonizers—commonly known as Pilgrims—arrived in 1620 aboard the Mayflower which arrived in present-day Provincetown Harbor after fleeing from religious persecution in England.

They were taught how to harvest the land and hunt by the local Wampanoag tribe because they did not have have enough food, and were also later taught how to cook the food they had harvested.

That happened in the fall of 1621 where they gathered for a feast wild turkeys, duck, geese, fish and shellfish, corn, green vegetables and dried fruits in celebration of the successful harvest.

But the concept of giving thanks for a bountiful harvest was not started by the new arrivals to New England, but rather Native Americans who saw "each day [as] a day of thanksgiving to the Creator," according to Zotigh.

Peters adds: "They've taken poetic license with that story, as there was never an invitation that was made to the Wampanoag to come and join them for a feast."

"It was more of an accidental awareness, because the colonists who were celebrating their own harvest had fired off muskets which was their way to celebrate something and that drew the attention of the Wampanoag who was threatened by it."

According to Peters, the tribe then came down with bows and arrows to inspect if they were in danger and "somehow or another their fears were assuaged and smoothed over and they spent three days with the Pilgrims after that."

"But it was not an invitation extended to their neighbors who had helped them survive," she explains.

While not all Native Americans are a monolith who have the same relationship with the modern Thanksgiving holiday—as some do choose to celebrate it or use it as an opportunity to spend time with family—many across the country mark it as a National Day of Mourning.

Peters explains this is because the date of which 102 Pilgrims arrived to New England marks the beginning of the "colonial period," one which is "literally etched in stone on the Plymouth waterfall," the national monument dedicated to the arrival of the Pilgrims.

They mark that day as the symbol of the injustices Native Americans would face from when Christopher Columbus first set foot onto the continent in 1492, many of which continue to this day.

"It's a date that speaks of kidnappings of [people] who never came back, kidnappings of Native men to be brought to Europe to be sold into slavery and paraded around the streets of London as a curiosity," Peters says

Then there was the diseases the Europeans brought with them to which Native Americans had no immunity.

Europeans created an epidemic of diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza and cholera, which came to be known as The Great Dying.

Warfare, slavery and disease are thought to have killed an estimated 12 million Native Americans between 1492 and 1900, according to David Michael Smith from the University of Houston-Downtown.

To mark the day, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe will head to a spot near Plymouth Rock to perform ceremonies they choose to keep private, but is a time they can spend "time acknowledging the sacrifices of our ancestors, and the injustices that continue to this day throughout Indian country."

"And then we do gather as family, that's how we spend the day," Peters adds.