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The Real History of Thanksgiving and the Dangers of Imperialist Narratives

Written by Grace Bradley

Anticolonialism has been a hot-button topic in recent years. And with each November that passes, the topic of Thanksgiving becomes more and more controversial. This is for several reasons. The main one being reactionary conservatives feeling threatened by the notion that this country was founded on genocide, the other being the “well what do we do now” question. If you know me at all, you know that I have a lot of feelings about colonialism (tiocfaidh ár lá), and I hope that this piece will not only enlighten you on the history of the holiday but also highlight the danger of continuing to teach this false history.

A plaque acknowledging National Day of Mourning

So. Thanksgiving. A holiday that for years was disguised as a peaceful meeting between two different groups, and also acts as the bible for the “I don’t see color” crowd. I’m probably not the first person to tell you that this is a lie. So what actually happened? It all starts with one Native American man, Tisquantum, more commonly referred to by his colonial nickname, Squanto. Tisquantum was a member of the Wampanoag tribe. He was kidnapped by a slave trader but managed to escape to England. While in England, he learned English. During all this, European settlers arrived in New England, and with them came diseases that killed countless Native Americans. When Tisquantum returned to North America, he found his people dead. Meanwhile, Wampanoag chief Massasoit believed that the pilgrims could act as allies against the Narragansett, an enemy of the Wampanoag tribe. Tisquantum became a translator for both the colonists and the Wampanoag people, this led to a successful harvest for the pilgrims. In celebration, the settlers set off a series of gunfire. This worried Massasoit, who thought that the shooting meant war. More importantly, Wampanoag warriors came to the settlement in preparation for war, not because they were so graciously invited. Rather than battling, the two groups engaged in a feast.

Drawing of Tisquantum

The true history of Thanksgiving is rather uncomplicated. The Wampanoag tribe didn’t work with the pilgrims out of respect or friendship, but out of survival. The holiday is built on necessity, not brotherhood. So why has the narrative suggested otherwise? Well, the reason is clear: it’s comforting. The idea that for one glorious feast, two ways of life met and celebrated their differences is a lot easier for white people and colonizers to swallow than the truth being that the Wampanoag people truly had no one else to turn to than those who oppressed them. Reckoning with that would mean reevaluating all that this country is based on and a lot of people simply do not want to do that. The other reason this fabrication is so widely accepted is that it creates this idea that Native Americans, and in turn all colonized people, were content with their entire culture being decimated because the pilgrims were so nice that one time. It erases all the bloodshed and disease brought on by European colonizers after the feast. The feast was just that, a feast. It didn’t magically bring an end to the genocide. If we believe that one instance of kindness among decades of violence makes up for decades of violence, then we believe the lies fed to us by imperialists. Imperialism wants you to contribute to it. It wants you to aid in it. We cannot let that happen by continuing to spread false narratives.

The American Indian by Native Artist Fritz Scholder (left(

So what can we do? Educating others on the real story is the most important tool we have. But donating and supporting Native causes is equally as important. Do recommends eating Native American food on the holiday, which I think is a lovely idea. Using Thanksgiving as a way to meet up with family, rather than using it to promote brotherly love is valuable as well. We all have a part to play in reversing the effects of centuries of colonialism. Imperialism is a disease. Starting conversations and taking action against the spread of it might just be the cure.

Below is a list of Native American organizations that take donations

Native American Heritage Association

National Indian Child Welfare Association

American Indian College Fund

Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance

Native Wellness Institute

Warrior Women Project

Native American Disability Law Center


Menjivar, Jackie. “Truthsgiving: The True History of Thanksgiving.” DoSomething.Org, Accessed 25 Oct. 2023.

“Everything You’ve Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong.” The New York Times,

Office, CPN Public Information. “The True, Dark History of Thanksgiving.” Potawatomi.Org, 21 Nov. 2022,

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