Despite what our fourth-grade history books implied, Native Americans weren’t invited to the first recorded Thanksgiving.
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A lot of myths surround the first Thanksgiving feast—the most glaring one being that it emblemized peaceful interaction between colonists and natives. The repercussions of white colonialism still exist today, as evidenced by the police’s brutal treatment of the protesters at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Considering recent events, reflecting on American history, and deciding how we will move forward has never been more relevant. As we pack up our cars, load up our fridges, and prepare for Thanksgiving this week, it’s important to separate fact from fiction and re-examine what we’re celebrating in the first place.
Despite what our fourth grade history books implied, Native Americans weren’t invited to the first recorded Thanksgiving. Primary sources detailing the first feast in 1621 are slim, but based on the firsthand accounts we do have, Pilgrims never extended a formal dinner invitation to Native Americans. According to colony leader William Bradford’s account, Of Plymouth Plantation, natives approached the festivities out of curiosity and were permitted to participate after the fact. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising, but it does fracture the common, rose-colored portrait of an inclusive gathering.
Another major myth has to do with the feast itself. In a 17th century colonial settlement, sugar, butter, and ingredients that might make food edible were hard to come by. This is something to be grateful for because—depending on which relative’s house you go to—our modern versions actually have flavor. According to Smithsonian, the first Thanksgiving meal consisted of wildfowl and venison (and little else). It would take 50 years before they cultivated the cranberries for a sauce to compliment the smorgasbord of meat.
Lastly, the day we celebrate Thanksgiving has more to do with extending the holiday shopping season than commemorating the end of harvest season. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last Thursday to give Americans more time to shop for Christmas. As you can imagine, people were not happy about it. Luckily, if you’re one of those people who like to bemoan the holiday season as a consumer-driven, capitalist frenzy—congratulations. You were right all along.
Thanksgiving certainly isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, and some would go as far as to say it’s a celebration of centuries-old white colonialism and genocide. By untethering it from common falsehoods and recognizing the flaws we have yet to face, perhaps we can channel our efforts into actually embracing gratitude and inclusivity. Now that’d be something worth celebrating.
Note: This article originally appeared on November 24, 2016.