The Truth About Thanksgiving


“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and everyone is surely excited for the upcoming four day weekend, stuffing ourselves with food and spending time with friends and family. This holiday, celebrated every November, is a commemoration of the arrival of the pilgrims in the New World in 1621 and their historic, peaceful celebration with the Native Americans. But is it really? Though we associate Thanksgiving with a literal buffet of wholesome festivities and concepts, there are some things in its history that we should be reminded of.

When we think of Thanksgiving, Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” and Jean Leone Gerome Ferris’ “The First Thanksgiving” are what often pop into our minds.

Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” depicts a “typical” modernized Thanksgiving as it shows a mother or grandmother serving piping hot turkey in front of her family. This painting was the third part of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series that were inspired by FDR’s State of the Union address during World War II. It was a great way to inspire patriotism, hope, and unity within citizens. But where are the Native Americans? Where are the Pilgrims? They aren’t present in this picture and neither are the things they symbolize. But isn’t Rockwell’s painting the most accurate depiction of Thanksgiving? Yes, for us. The Thanksgiving you see now is a product of modernization, that people just appreciate the time off and consider it another holiday without appreciating its history.

“Freedom From Want” by Norman Rockwell

We also see in Ferris’ “The First Thanksgiving” a seemingly historical interpretation of that fateful day on 1621. The typical Native Indian dressed in their feather hats, receiving food from the Pilgrims as if it they’re rain after a year of drought. They have also been strategically placed on the ground whilst the Pilgrims are situated on a table. Even now that image of Indians with the feather hat, tainted red face, and that incredible aura of inferiority has been engraved in the minds of both children and adults. But we still have Indians and Pilgrims in the picture right? Well, not exactly.

The Indians and the Pilgrims obviously didn’t maintain their friendship, and the year after 1621 — and pretty much every year after until the 1860’s — Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated. Ever since then, the holiday has basically been everything but those two groups. That first Thanksgiving image we have is not only historically inaccurate, but damaging. Does anyone know about King Philip’s War? What do you know about the War of 1812? For hundreds of years we have been trying to kill these Native Americans, and until now they don’t have the representation they deserve.

So what though?

Celebrating actual friendships and family as well as giving thanks is a pretty awesome thing to do, and why should we care about what happened 400 years ago when it doesn’t affect us today?

And that’s just the thing. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Thanksgiving the way we’re doing it right now, nothing wrong with sitting down on a table and eating a turkey and pumpkin pies. But we settle. We settle with the information already engraved in our heads, we settle with the whole Pilgrims and Indians thing, we settle with our feathered-hat perception of Natives, and we always settle the way we see and celebrate national holidays — often free of school or work.

We need to ask more questions, we need to do more research, and we need to reflect more often because these things are integral parts of not only our history but our identity. You don’t need to necessarily change them; that’s not the point of this article. According to High Country News, just 81 Native Americans hold office state legislatures across the country as of 2018. Even then, there are still some states that do not allow Native Americans to vote. We have a damaged perception of Natives and an idealized perception of Pilgrims. Not a lot of us care about what happened to the Indians and what is still happening to them. We disrespectfully incorporate them into our music festivals, our G-rated Disney movies, stomp on their civil rights and just overall forget that they exist.

So when you sit down this Thursday with your family and friends, maybe take a few seconds to acknowledge history and how it’s changed and shaped the situation you’re in at that present moment.