The idea of celebrating a harvest time “thanksgiving” has been widespread among different cultures throughout history. The idea is simple: we thank God for a good harvest.
The traditional American Thanksgiving, however, begins with Plymouth Plantation.
Squanto, of the Wampanoag tribe, had learned English while being a slave in Europe. Upon coming back to America, Squanto taught the settlers how to fish, farm and so on. As the plantation faced a difficult first winter on American shores, Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe helped maintain the colony. They survived, in part, because of the Native Americans.
A feast was held after the first harvest and the Wampanoag tribe was invited. Thus, a tradition was born.
It wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national holiday.
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” Abraham Lincoln declared in 1863, in middle of the Civil War.
Ever since, the holiday has grown into one of the biggest holidays in the U.S. According to Norbest, one of the top turkey marketing firms in the U.S., about 300 million turkeys are produced each year. About 45 million, or 15 percent of all turkeys, are consumed during Thanksgiving.
It’s big. Most of us think of Thanksgiving as the beginning of the holiday seaso n as we all go home to be with family for the feast. But that’s all we know it as, anymore.
Lincoln didn’t comment on the Native American aspect of the holiday. In fact, that history is omitted entirely. What we’re left with is the pre-American idea of a generic “thanksgiving:” thank you God for giving us this good harvest, sans the Native American part of the story.
Over the years the tale of Thanksgiving would lead back to the original story, the one we’re all taught as grade-schoolers: The Native Americans helped the Plymouth settlers survive a devastatingly harsh winter, taught them how to fish, how to put fish into the ground for fertilizer, and so on. You know.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Not long after the original Thanksgiving, more settlers from Europe began to arrive —so many that the original inhabitants started to get in the way.
So began the campaign to annihilate the Indians. Or at least marginalize them to the farthest reaches of their own land.
If an Indian massacre didn’t kill them, then infections did, and plague ravaged populations. Up to 90 percent of all Native Americans who died throughout the genocidal history of America died of infectious disease. It’s rumored that Custer had even purposely given the Native Americans blankets containing the small pox virus. This is an early example of biological warfare.
The irony of Thanksgiving is that it purportedly represents, at least in part, the kindness of the Native Americans, who would go on to become endangered for their own act of compassion.
If we truly believe in the great feast that brings us together, then this silent history shouldn’t be forgotten. Thanksgiving should be understood in terms of the Native Americans throughout history who lost their lives so that America could go on to become what it is today.