“So Much Bigger than Just Thanksgiving”: The Myth of the American Holiday
Indigenous students share what Thanksgiving means to them and what non-Indigenous students can do to celebrate the holiday without “blind ignorance.”
In a week, I’ll travel with my family to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey to celebrate Thanksgiving. We’ll dress up, spend all day preparing classic Thanksgiving dishes and sit down to a long dinner. Although the stereotypical Thanksgiving story does not play a large role in my family’s celebration, it is inextricably woven into the holiday — from the turkeys to the cornucopias to the myth of that happy Thanksgiving feast back in 1621.
As early as elementary school, most Americans know the Thanksgiving story by heart. In that version, Squanto and other friendly Indigenous people rescue the well-meaning settlers from a cold New England winter. In celebration of this mutually-beneficial relationship between the colonizers and the now colonized, the Pilgrims and Indigenous people sit down to a feast and live happily ever after.
What really happened? In reality, the true origins of the holiday are extremely murky. It might have even been an accident, according to Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag journalist and activist. It is very likely that the Wampanoags who attended the feast were not actually invited, Peters describes on the “All My Relations” podcast. Not only that, but the shared dinner in 1621 was not considered to be an important event at the time — the first-hand record of it is an offhanded reference in a footnote of a Pilgrim’s journal entry from that day.
Most importantly, however, this romanticization of the first Thanksgiving ignores the centuries of colonization, violence and oppression that followed.
As Abby Burgess ’25, a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe, reminds me, this violence is “not a relic of the past.”
“Natives are continuing to be erased and decimated and ultimately still face genocide, just in different ways,” Burgess said.
Thus, for many Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, a reminder of the oppression and racism Indigenous peoples have experienced throughout history at the hands of white colonizers.
For some, however, Thanksgiving takes on a different meaning. While Ahnili Johnson-Jennings ’23 and her family recognize its painful history, the holiday is centered around being together. Her Thanksgiving dinner combines the customs of her family’s four tribes — the Quapaw, Choctaw, Sac and Fox, and Miami Nations. Johnson-Jennings said her family prepares food using traditional methods and their “intertwined daily cultural practices.” These practices center around “being together, gardening together, hunting and having this understanding of where our food is coming from, how powerful food can be and how it’s giving us life.”
The Johnson-Jennings family also sets a spirit plate of food from their dinner. The plate is a reminder that “we are not here alone, that we’ve had tons of ancestors and great people come before us that are here sitting with us as well,” Johnson-Jennings said.
Following the meal, the plate is left outside for the spirits, she explained.
“We’re letting the earth take what it wants and making sure to take care of those who have taken care of us,” Johnson-Jennings said.
Overall, Johnson-Jennings’ holiday experience focuses on celebration, rather than mourning.
“Despite everything that has happened to our ancestors, we have that appreciation of each other and our family,” Johnson-Jennings said. “And the resilience that we have to still be an indigenous family living in this era.”
For Justin Santana ’25, Thanksgiving carries a similar weight. His family, part of the Nipmuc tribe, celebrates by coming together, eating dinner and making sure to acknowledge the true history of the holiday and what it should mean. This meaning is, of course, inherently complex.
“We believe that the meaning is good, but we also need to remember all the Native peoples who unfortunately suffered,” Santana said.
In his family, remembering the history of Thanksgiving entails more than grief.
“We like to celebrate the successes of Native American people,” Santana said. “Before we eat, we make sure to honor a lot of people in our family, those that came before us and contributed to the world that we live in today.”
Burgess also tries to bring this sense of awareness into her family’s celebrations.
“We celebrate the gratefulness part of the holiday,” Burgess said. “But we also acknowledge the history and read some passages from certain books to remind ourselves of the origins of the holiday.”
Last year, Burgess’ celebration was much smaller due to the pandemic. She remembers how this intimacy gave her “a lot more leverage” to discuss the holiday in depth.
“I brought a lot of questions for people to think about,” Burgess said. “Like, what do we know about this holiday? Why is it so widespread when it was something that originated in New England?”
The general lack of awareness surrounding contemporary issues facing Indigenous people frustrates Burgess.
“Nobody knows that tribes are still fighting for sovereignty and other rights,” Burgess said. “Thanksgiving, for me, is an annual reminder that nobody knows any of that stuff.”
For Burgess, Thanksgiving is representative of “everything that’s happened and everything that [Indigenous people] deal with now.”
In order to combat this lack of awareness, Santana suggested that many changes need to be made in early education. From my own elementary school experience, I remember cutting out paper pilgrim hats and feathered Indigenous headdresses, and while a craft like this may seem harmless to many Americans, it has wider implications.
“While [Thanksgiving is] supposed to be a celebratory thing, it’s inaccurately depicting people that still exist today, in a stereotypical and even sometimes racist way,” Santana said.
These stereotypes reflect an ingrained misperception in American schools, and as Burgess puts it, “an education system that is itself inherently colonial.”
It is also important to remember that Thanksgiving is a symptom of a much larger problem in the U.S., and that Indigenous people today still feel the long-term impacts of colonization. As Johnson-Jennings points out, much of correcting the problematic narrative of the holiday involves “going a step farther from Thanksgiving” and reflecting on the present, rather than just the past.
“It’s so much bigger than just Thanksgiving,” Burgess echoes.
But as she points out, the holiday — which, at its core, represents the shared history between Indigenous peoples and colonizers — provides a strong starting point. From here, we have the opportunity to begin the process not of erasing Thanksgiving, but of widening the narrative to include Indigenous voices.
“This should be a holiday we celebrate,” Santana said. “But not with blind ignorance.”
So, if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving next week, take a moment to reflect. Think about where the food on your table comes from. Celebrate gratitude and coming together, but ditch the myth. Recognizing the faults of the history we are taught is the first step, the only way to start moving forward.