A Day Without Merit

The Native American Point of View Surrounding the Myth Behind the Thanksgiving Holiday


The daughter of a Navajo mother and Paiute father, Cheyenne Phoenix knows the pain associated with Thanksgiving. She reflects on her childhood with a particular gaze—pondering over why she and her family had dinner on a day that is attached to the struggle and genocide of her people.

“Growing up, I didn’t know the history of my people and the tribes,” she said. “It wasn’t until around high school along with working and hearing from others, and eventually taking American Indian courses did I find out more. But, spiritually, I always felt like there was something missing. Native peoples and my ancestors fought hard for me to be here, and we all share a deep sense of communal spirit. We’re all connected like that.”

While Phoenix eventually learned the darker side of the holiday’s origins, many younger students continue to go through their academic careers with no in-depth knowledge of the holiday and the native culture that is an essential part of American history.

Case in point: College Board’s recent AP U.S. History Exam, which has been criticized by Indian history scholars for perpetuating lies about Native Americans.

According to Indian scholars, the curriculum implies that the idea of depopulation was accidental and erasing indigenous sovereignty.

A study conducted by historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for her book All the Real Indians Died Off found that 90 percent of statewide curriculum for K-12 students has no mention of Native Americans and their history after the 1900s.

So, how does all of this affect the Thanksgiving holiday?

“What you have is a selective narrative where they show you the first five percent of something, but the other 95 percent is filtered,” said American Indian Studies (AIS) professor Daniele Bolleli. “I’m only going to show you one piece and then you assume that’s the whole thing.”    

Fellow AIS professor Theresa Gregor, who is of Ipai decent, said these false narratives often perpetuate stereotypes based on unrealistic experiences that, as a result, are a visible reminder of colonization.

“The national holiday often misrepresents actual experiences between settlers and Indians,” she said. “It wasn’t a peaceful, welcoming, sharing friendship. It was often violent where American resources were taken without permission.”

For most children growing up, they are taught what Gregor and her colleagues refer to as a “national mythology” surrounding Thanksgiving—a harmonious feast between members of the Wampanoag nation and Pilgrims in the colony of Plymouth. In an interview between Ramona Peters of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Historic Preservation Center and Gale Toensing of Indian Country Today Media Network, Peters paints a different picture of history.

“We made a treaty,” Peters said. “The leader of our nation at the time, Yellow Feather Oasmeequin [Massasoit], made a treaty with John Carver [the first governor of the colony]. It basically said we’d let them be there, and we would protect them against any enemies and they would protect us from any of ours. It was basically an ‘I’ll watch your back, you watch mine’ agreement.”

Peters continues, insisting that a lot of what transpired among the Pilgrims and Natives was the result of fear.

“You have armed Natives who are camping nearby. They [the colonists] were always vulnerable to the new land, new creatures, even the trees—there were no such trees in England at that time. So, they were very vulnerable and we did protect them.”

“You can see throughout their journals that they were always nervous and, unfortunately, when they were nervous, they were very aggressive,” Peters said. “In those days, the English really needed to rely on us and, yes, they were polite as best they could be, but they regarded us as savages nonetheless.”

The events that followed are why current Native Americans view the holiday with disdain—the murder of 700 Pequot Indians in modern-day Connecticut, which then governor John Winthrop proclaimed their victory as an official “Day of Thanksgiving.”

It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, partly to ease tensions between the divided north and south.

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt briefly moved Thanksgiving up a week, in an effort to extend the already important shopping period before Christmas and spur economic activity during the Great Depression.

While the pain of the past is still felt by Native Americans today, Bolleli feels it’s equally important to not flip opposing narratives in order to have a constructive argument over Thanksgiving and colonization.

“The problem with narratives is people fall into political cans. If you want to make a real good case of colonization over 500 years you have to be nuanced about it,” Bolleli said. Otherwise, you’re saying things that can be disproven. Someone can say, ‘Oh, you see, in this case they (Native Americans) did something bad so everything you’re saying is stupid.’ Narratives feed off each other, and then you find that people keep pointing the finger at each other,” he added. “My personal position: colonization was awful, but that’s precisely why I believe that we shouldn’t overgeneralize.”

AIS Director Craig Stone feels the solution in battling the pain of the past is the need for continued education.

“Anything created by people who oppress you—whether it’s a holiday or a term or a law—there’s always a question of, ‘Why should I privilege that?’” Stone said. “‘What do I know as truthful and essential to one’s own worldview?’ People always point to a problem, but the solution is to educate themselves and educate each other.”

Stone and the AIS department’s methods of further educating students include Long Beach State’s partnership with the Long Beach Unified School District in which students in high school can enroll in an AIS course—one of the first nationally implemented schools to do this.

Another solution is revamping the department’s minor program to make it easier for students to receive a minor in AIS—in which it has 20 partnerships with different departments on campus to make minoring in this field possible.

Other resources on campus includes the American Indians Student Council, where students such as Phoenix host and co-sponsor events that represent American Indian students' views and issues.

Although there’s still plenty of work to be done to help educate future generations, Thanksgiving is still celebrated by many despite its ambiguity.

“Being teachers and educators, more needs to be done in educating future generations and in understanding the legacy they’ve inherited,” Gregor said. “The point was to erase us and take away our land. Just the sheer presence of Indian people today disproves that notion.”

As for Phoenix, it’s a day she and her siblings choose not to celebrate, but rather every day is considered a day of thanks among family and those closest to her.

“Society is not black and white, there’s a lot of gray or reasons and explanations for things and why they happen,” she said.  “Being able to be in college and achieve a higher education is an opportunity a lot of people don't have and I’m thankful to have this opportunity."