Thanksgiving Has a Controversial History


Thanksgiving has a controversial history, and there are differing interpretations on just what the holiday means. Traditionally. it has been seen by most as a holiday that is celebrated among family and friends, and where we are supposed to give thanks for all that we have been blessed with in life. As such, it has been seen as a pleasant, and mostly benign, holiday. Yet, that has been changing in recent years. More people are questioning the origins of this holiday, particularly given the controversial and divisive chapter of history that the traditional interpretation of the holiday represents.

The Thanksgiving tradition began in Massachusetts in autumn of 1621, although some people suggest that the real roots of the holiday came in 1614, when numerous natives, most famously Squanto, were taken by the English and sent to Europe to be sold as slaves. While there, Squanto learned the language and customs of the English, which would help the English settlers enormously years later when he returned to the New World. When the Mayflower landed in what is now Plymouth, the Pilgrims tried to establish their colony, but were decimated during the winter of 1620, losing half of their population. Squanto, however, was able to communicate with them. He and the Wampanoag tribe that he belonged to taught the Pilgrims about hunting, fishing, and planting. Using these newly learned skills, the Pilgrims survived, and ultimately, thrived.

Following that disastrous winter of 1620, the Pilgrims were able to prepare and have enough food for the upcoming winter of 1621. In celebration, they held a three-day feast to give thanks for their good fortune, with members of the Wampanoag in attendance as well. They had a feast that differed considerably from what is seen as a conventional Thanksgiving feast these days, as it consisted of roasted goose, lobster, cod fish and corn. There was no turkey. This is the feast that is considered to have been the first true Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving traditions continued in New England in the 1600s, but these were very different than the traditional feast that the holiday tends to conjure today. These days had a distinctively Puritan bent, and consisted of fasts, rather than feasts, and of giving thanks to God for bountiful harvests, victories in battle, and for rain that nourished the food supply. The day received the first official recognition on a national scale in 1777, when the Continental Congress maintained that all 13 colonies should celebrate a day of giving thanks in celebration of the rebel victory against the British at Saratoga during the Revolutionary War.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, numerous states had days of giving thanks as holidays. However, each state celebrated on different days, and in some cases, these days varied by months. Sarah J. Hale, a magazine editor most famous for authoring the poem Mary Had a Little Lamb, pushed hard for a national holiday on a uniform date to be established, so that it could help to unify a divided nation. President Lincoln recognized the value of this, and in 1863, just four months after the battle at Gettysburg, he established the national holiday to be held on the final Thursday in November. It has remained a national holiday ever since.

Yet, Thanksgiving is not a holiday that everyone welcomes. For natives, the meaning of Thanksgiving is not as innocent and filled with reverence as it has been for many others in the country, and according to them, it actually signifies the beginning of the end of their traditional way of life. Suzan Shown Harjo is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and an activist for native Americans, and she went on NPR’s The Takeaway on Monday to discuss Thanksgiving. Harjo has been one of the most vocal and visible advocates of native peoples for decades now. Among her credentials in this capacity, she hosted the first ever radio program for Native Americans on WBAI in New York City. She was a Congressional liaison during the Carter White House years, where she helped pass the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. She was also active in trying to establish the American Indian Museum in 1967. It took decades, but the museum was ultimately established under the umbrella of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and she is particularly proud that it stands in front of Capitol Hill, which she feels is very fitting. This week, she earned the distinction of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Shown Harjo noted that Thanksgiving has a controversial history from the native perspective. She says that for natives, it is a day that conjures historical memories of massacres, broken treaties and promises betrayed. However, she says that she does like a tradition of giving thanks, which she mentioned was something that native people did everyday, and took very seriously. She particularly liked the idea of a feast to honor such a day, where everyone gets together to give thanks, but suggested that it should be comprised of native foods in particular.

Many natives agree with Shown Harjo, and some go further, believing that this should be what they call the National Day of Mourning. More than 100 people are expected to attend a protest today in Plymouth, to honor those natives that died as a result of European settlement in the 1600s, as well as plight of natives today. As a group, natives often rank among the poorest people in the country. The protesters in Plymouth are not necessarily opposed to the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday per se, but they do want people to recognize the grimmer truth behind the holiday that they say a more accurate interpretation of history would reveal. Specifically, they want people to understand that the holiday was first proclaimed by governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to honor those who were returning from the Pequot War in Connecticut, where over 700 natives, including women and children, were enslaved and massacred. This will mark 45 years of this movement for the National Day of Mourning.

There are other controversial angles with the extended Thanksgiving weekend that have risen in recent years, as well. Some people feel that “Black Friday,” which comes the day after Thanksgiving and is the traditional day when the holiday shopping season kicks off, is in fact the polar opposite of the spirit of giving thanks, and too often brings out the worst in people. In recent years, headlines of violence by crazed shoppers on Black Friday have made news headlines. Yet, the trend is that Black Friday is beginning earlier each year, with many store opening very early in the morning and, increasingly, more stores even opening on Thanksgiving itself. Some protesters have called for boycotts of stores that open on Thanksgiving, suggesting that the holiday holds a certain holiness and purity in spirit that retail stores are trampling on by opening on the holiday. There is even debate in two states, Connecticut and New Jersey, about passing laws regulating when stores can open on Thanksgiving weekend.

It is interesting to note, however, that even this has a tie in with Thanksgiving and the controversial history behind the holiday. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up one week in an effort to boost the sluggish economy, although some detractors dubbed it “Franksgiving.” Many refused to recognize the earlier Thanksgiving, and Congress passed a law in 1941 that firmly established Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in the month of November.

By Charles Bordeau


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The Takeaway

Photo by Mike Licht – Flickr

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