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A New Thanksgiving Story for a 21st Century America

Many Americans see Thanksgiving as a holiday rooted in our nation’s birth, celebrating a harvest feast. They imagine tables laden with turkey and its accompaniments, surrounded by brave Pilgrims and their newfound “Indian” friends. These ideas are reinforced every year in America’s classrooms, on televisions and at annual parades as the big day arrives.

Unfortunately, these ideas are based on a myth born at the height of the Civil War. Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential magazine editor who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” fervently campaigned for a national day of thanks. She envisioned a Thanksgiving holiday to celebrate peace and unite a divided country. In September 1863, Hale wrote to President Lincoln, urging him to create a national holiday, and he agreed. Thanksgiving, as we know it, was born.

Images of Pilgrims, “Indians” and turkeys embedded themselves into our nation’s conscience in the decades that followed–all at the expense of the true Thanksgiving story and the Wampanoag peoples who saved the Pilgrims. European historical records and Wampanoag accounts present a very different story.

In September 1620, a group of settlers left Plymouth to start new lives in the colony of Virginia. A storm blew them off course and they found themselves moored off the lands of the Wampanoag people in present-day Massachusetts. The newcomers explored their new world and stole food and provisions from Wampanoag homes. They created a new settlement, named Plymouth, on the site of a Wampanoag village devastated by disease and warfare caused in large part by earlier visits by European traders.

Nearly half of the settlers died that winter, largely due to exposure. When spring came, Wampanoag sachems (leaders), helped the newcomers and taught them how to raise local crops known as the “Three Sisters”: Corn, beans and squash. In November 1621, the settlers celebrated their first harvest. When they heard the gunfire, over 90 Wampanoag warriors and others joined the nearly 50 settlers and feasted as well. This was Keepunumuk, one of many harvest festivals celebrated by the Wampanoag people each year.

Unfortunately, the celebrations – and the newcomers’ thanks – did not last long. Fifty-five years later, in 1676, the settlers killed the son of the Wampanoag sachem who saved them. This was not new. European, and later American, settlers regularly attacked and exploited the Native people they met. This left Native Americans fighting foreign diseases, illegal occupation and removal from their homelands. The American government also created boarding schools that punished Native Americans who dared to speak their language or practise their culture.

White Americans justified their actions by defining Native Americans as peoples of the past, transformed and “improved” by Western civilization. We see this today when, for example, sports fans dress themselves as stereotypical “Indians,” wearing headdresses and doing “tomahawk chops” to cheer their team on. When asked, sports fans often insist they are honoring Native peoples, when they are actually harming us and our children, as confirmed by a recent study.

Despite the odds, Native peoples have survived and we are still here. We assert our identities, learn our languages and celebrate our cultures. We fight to improve the lives of our people and the health of our communities, to recover from the centuries of intergenerational trauma inflicted upon us and to prosper in a new world. Significant challenges remain, but we support each other and we will prosper.

Americans are deeply divided as they come to terms with the past and question their values for the future. It’s time for a new Thanksgiving story that unifies the country and centers the voices of Native peoples.

Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story does just that. A story for the youngest of readers, it gives children a new way to see and celebrate Thanksgiving. It helps their parents, friends and community members rethink the Thanksgiving they grew up with and find new, more inclusive ways to celebrate this holiday. Keepunumuk. . . is a new story for a 21st-century America.


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