Thanksgiving Then and Now: Should We Celebrate?

Jon Newstifter

Thanksgiving, which was only a few short weeks ago now, is a holiday that has a history wrought with bloodshed and, like all good mistakes, was immediately covered up with patriotic propaganda. 

The story goes as such: Pilgrims were struggling to live off their newly taken land and co-exist, in some fashion, with the native Wampanog tribe. The two groups didn’t get along very well, which was not always the case; when settlers initially arrived, relations between the tribe and the Pilgrims were very good. 

But this all changed when the Pilgrims started to expand their land into Wampanog territory and showed no signs of stopping. The Wampanog tribe, none too happy with this course of action, fought back. The Pilgrims responded by massacring hundreds of natives. 

In 1637, Thanksgiving was held for the first time in the New World by Massachusetts colony governor John Winthrop to celebrate the massacre of over 700 members of the Pequoit tribe. The holiday, far from being a cry for peace, was built upon a celebration of murder and colonization. 

People have forgotten that we, Americans, the dominant people of this state, were the original immigrants. We came from England, fleeing religious persecution and threat of violence, as many immigrants do today. 

And yet, we turn a blind eye to our own reflection out of a sense of fear. In trying to rid ourselves of persecution, we persecute others freely. We have become the bully that we so feared those hundreds of years ago. 

We sit around the table, eating with our family and trying to remain at peace. Perhaps that’s where the notion of the peace at the first Thanksgiving dinner comes from – we’re trying to broker our own, so our ancestors must have done the same. 

The first mistake is in thinking that they were the same as us. We have become so blinded by nostalgia and patriotism that we champion false ideals.

So, the question is: what can we do to fix this? How can we move past the tragedy of what was to build a better tomorrow?

The short answer is that we already are.

Through acknowledging our past and attempting to atone for the mistakes we have made, we’re already distancing ourselves from our violent ancestors and carving out a new path for ourselves. 

The biggest example of this is the resolution to the “Dakota 38” case. In 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged for crimes against settlers on the orders of President Abraham Lincoln. The corpses were then cut down and buried in a mass grave soon after. 

Unfortunately, W.W. Mayo, one of the members of the Mayo Clinic, happened upon the grave and dug up the corpse of Dakota leader Marpiya te najin for clinical study. The skeleton was then hung in the clinic itself before being shoved unceremoniously in a closet to waste away. 

However, in 2018, a representative of the same clinic offered an official apology towards his descendants and set up a scholarship in Marpiya’s name two months before Thanksgiving. The Mayo Clinic could have just stopped at an apology, but they went above and beyond through creating the scholarship. This shows an honest effort to atone for the sins of the past and open the door for communication in the future.

Thanksgiving has a torrid past, but a bright future ahead of it, thanks to the representations we have placed upon it. It brings people together with things like dinners, parties, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It allows people to get together and celebrate their similarities, putting away the past and moving into a brighter future for all. So, rather than rushing past it and moving into the Christmas season, we should take a quiet moment and celebrate how far we, as a nation, have come.