The curtain opens and a stage decorated with brightly colored leaves and a long dinner table command the audience’s attention. Five children walk onto the stage dressed as pilgrims in long brown dresses and overalls, with hats and bonnets firmly secured to their heads. Simultaneously, five “Indian” children enter the stage from the opposite side, dressed head- to-toe in tan fringed clothing, complete with intricate beading, elaborate feather headdresses and moccasins. The pilgrim leader and Indian chief smile, shake hands, and invite everyone to a feast of corn, squash and what appears to be a genetically mutated 50 lb. turkey.[turkey]
It is an all too familiar scene in Americana, the first grader’s Thanksgiving Day play. Of course the 6-year-olds dressed in detailed historical clothing look adorable, but aren’t they grossly misrepresenting the real story behind Thanksgiving? Wouldn’t it be more accurate if the pilgrim children raped, tortured and murdered the Indian children, stole their land and food, burned their villages and drove them off to uninhabitable lands? Then, blood stained faces and all, sat down to rejoice in their “triumph” over religious persecution from England?
While it is not recommended that first graders take part in such a heinous and gruesome rendition of the holiday, it is important to realize the true history behind the yearly turkey and pumpkin pie feast. So how about a little history lesson?
Even before the Pilgrims celebrated their first winter without starvation in 1621 at Plymouth Colony, Native Americans held harvest rituals like the Green Corn Dance performed by Cherokees. Then in 1623 Dutch colonists brought the religious aspect to Thanksgiving, unlike the Pilgrims that resisted public religious display. In 1637, European colonists attacked and burned a Pequot village near what is now Mystic, Connecticut. In celebration of the estimated 600 killed, the governor of Massachusetts declared a “day of thanksgiving” to honor the “victory” over the Pequot.
A cherished national holiday based on murder? Kind of takes the taste right out of grandma’s cranberry sauce, doesn’t it?
Finally, after the American Revolution, George Washington declared November 26, 1789 as the holiday. Then after the Union victory, Abraham Lincoln revived Thanksgiving in 1863 after intense urgings from Sarah J. Gale, the editor of Ladies Magazine. Today the turkey we eat represents the four wild turkeys the Pilgrims had in the original 1621 feast.
Many Americans, however, fail to recognize the deeper meaning behind the first Thanksgiving: the beginning of the systematic white man’s genocide of nearly 15 million Native Americans.
“The word ‘Thanksgiving’ makes me think about spending time with my family and eating a great dinner,” said Michael Block, a journalism junior. “A little thought may pop into my head about what I learned in high school about what happened to the Native Americans, but I mostly try to focus on the positive holiday spirit and being grateful for my blessings.”
As Americans we are blessed. We live in the most advanced, wealthy nation in the world. Many have access to highly sophisticated technology, medicine and resources that many people throughout the world have never heard of.
But at what (or whose) cost have we acquired such things over the years?
At the onset of European immigration to North America in the late 15th century, the indigenous population was estimated at around 15 million. By 1890, that number had dropped to less than 250,000.
Not only did Europeans bring positive hopes for building a “free” nation with them on the Mayflower but also rampant disease such as smallpox and an ideology to rid the land of “inferior” and “immoral” races, beginning with Native Americans. The spreading of disease, relocation to destitute regions, and outright murder of Native Americans was not only acknowledged but also encouraged by the early settlers.
However it is ignorance, not necessarily denial, which may be the reason Americans have failed to acknowledge this horrific part of history.
“I’m sorry to say that most people know almost nothing about the history of indigenous peoples,” said Professor Philip Bellfy, an MSU professor of Native American history.
“Most Americans, especially, have little understanding of the genocide and dispossession in this hemisphere, and even less about the fact that this pattern has been repeated around the world.”
Instead of celebrating this day, many Native Americans fast on Thanksgiving, to recognize and offer solemn remembrance for what has happened to their people over the past 400 years.
While the massacres have stopped, the small Native American population in America is still rife with suffering. Life expectancy on American Indian reservations is estimated at 50 years, and nearly three-fourths of the adult population suffers from alcohol or drug addiction.
Thanksgiving should be a time for giving thanks and spending time with your family. But on the same token, it should also not be time to turn a blind eye to widespread Native American suffering since the onset of “white manifest destiny.” It’s not likely that Americans will put down their mashed potatoes and pecan pie any time soon, and children should certainly not act out the murder of their ancestors, but it is important to realize the disturbing history behind our national “day of thanks.”

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