5 Ways to Honor the Historical Context of Thanksgiving In Light of a 500-Year Old Pandemic

How Does Your Celebration of Thanksgiving Impact the Native American Population Around You?
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Thanksgiving is an annual celebration that started in the United States as New England’s commemoration of a successful harvest.  It morphed into a national holiday at the hands of President Abraham Lincoln who tried to unite the nation through a day of “Thanksgiving.”  

This year, in this pandemic, we have lost nearly 800,000 people in the United States from Covid.  While these numbers are staggering and no doubt, we have all gone through trauma whether we have lost loved ones or feared losing someone, it is hard to imagine the intergenerational trauma that this illness has tapped into for Native Americans and how strongly that trauma must be experienced during Thanksgiving.  

Thanksgiving is largely understood as a joyous feast between Pilgrims and stereotypically depicted Native Americans where they gave thanks for a bountiful harvest.  According to the story, the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to survive and basically, allowed colonization to begin.  However, this is hardly the reality.  

Before the Pilgrims landed at the mythical rock of Plimoth, during the 1500s, the many peoples of New England, collectively known by indigenous groups as the People of the First Light, had been trading with Europeans.  Although the Europeans had their eye on this land, they were unable to conquer and settle the foreign lands where large populations already existed.  However, when they could, they kidnapped locals and sold them into slavery.  

Because of the relative isolation of the Native Americans from the rest of the world, the Native tribes did not have immunity to many European diseases.  In 1616, the European traders brought with them a sickness that, for the next three years, nearly wiped out the Wampanoag settlements.  This plague and its consequences are today known as The Great Dying. For the Wampanoags, originally located in what today is Eastern Massachusetts, this epidemic marked the start of a centuries-long series of deaths from illnesses and overall cruelty.  They were vulnerable to outside invaders, especially the Narragansetts, a neighboring, enemy tribe.  This created a political environment that allowed the European invaders a foothold in Wampanoag territory. 

When the Pilgrims arrived, Tisquantum, a formerly enslaved Native who spoke English, eventually supported the new settlers and taught them how to survive on the new land.  He introduced them to the Wampanoag leader Ousamequin, with whom they signed a peace treaty.  The alliance afforded the Wampanoag protection from the Narragansetts who had not been as affected by the plague as had the Wampanoags. It also afforded the Pilgrims greater support in learning how to survive in a foreign land.  While a bumper crop led to the celebration we know today as Thanksgiving in which it is believed that the two, uneasy allies celebrated together, the alliance was short lived.  Soon enough, more settlers arrived, bringing with them more diseases, including small pox.  Tisquantum, himself, died from illness.  As the Native population decreased, it became easier to enslave and subjugate Native Americans.  Europeans waged wars against Native tribes and decimated them.  The treaty made with the Wampanoags eventually was no longer acknowledged as the European settlers refused to see Native Americans as their equals both for their darker skin and their refusal to convert to Christianity.  For the European settlers, they had found a formula that worked.  During the next centuries, the White man killed with both diseases and wars.   Colonists infamously even gave Native Americans blankets infested with small pox in an effort to create manmade plagues.  

After centuries of facing plagues brought purposely and accidentally through colonization, the current pandemic, though a new experience for most of us, is a reminder of centuries of suffering for native populations.  Additionally, the virus has hit Native American communities in terms of both infection and deaths much harder than White communities.  What can we do this Thanksgiving to keep from contributing more to this burden?

  1. Teach Thanksgiving in Context – As lovely as the idea is to remember a gathering of two communities to celebrate a bountiful harvest, the celebration did not occur in a political vacuum.  Teach students about the political situation the Wampanoags faced due to illness.  Teach students about the alliance they had formed with White settlers and how the alliance was not honored by the White man.  Teach students the real history.
  2. Avoid Reenacting the First Thanksgiving – Yes, it’s a tradition, but it’s a tradition that marks the beginning of murder and erasure for Native Americans.  It also involves cultural appropriation when students dress up in stereotypical headdresses.  Rather, have students research various Native tribes and traditions and report on them.  Let them learn about Native communities both as a part of our past and as a part of our present.
  3. Land AcknowledgementWe all live on stolen lands.  Have students look up on whose land they reside.  As language educators, ask students to look up what languages were once spoken where they live.  Does anyone still speak these languages?  Imagine the diversity that once existed in what is now The United States, and talk about how that contrasts with the English only discourse.  You can look up this information here.
  4. Raise Funds for Native Tribes – Native American communities continue to be the recipient of systemic racism, healthcare inequities, and poor education systems.  While it may be too late to do this for Thanksgiving, it’s a great time to plan. Look up organizations such as Partnership with Native Americans.  After choosing the right organization, consider how to raise funds.  It could be as simple as everyone giving up a snack for lunch or as complicated as a car wash, depending on the age and inclination of the group.
  5. Read Books About Native Americans – With older students, I particularly like Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn.  For younger students, consider books such as I Sung You Down From the Stars by Tasha Spillet-Sumner or Indian No More by Charlene WIlling McManis.  

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