Imagine this: Once upon a time in the 1600s, a friendly, humble band of colonial settlers invited their respected neighbors, the Wampanoag Indians, to a dinner that would celebrate the great relationship they had so far. In this story, America was a place where Native American culture was honored, and the people there lived forever after in harmony.

Right? Yeah? Well, no. Not even a little. Depending on the education you had growing up, and maybe even depending on where you grew up, you may have learned a great deal about the history of American Indians. You might have learned a little about what happened after European settlers arrived, including the train of injustices suffered. You might have just learned unattached, impersonal facts about Native Americans.

Or, you may have actually learned the reality of the impact the United States’ federal government and its laws have had on American Indians; how acts of allotment and removal have separated families and tribes; how boarding schools created by the federal government took children involuntarily from their families and communities, forcing them to grow up in an abusive environment where they were discriminated against; how many tribes have no federal recognition; how many crimes and assaults have occurred with impunity as reservations remain without the ability to prosecute non-Native people.

“I grew up with my teachers saying Thanksgiving was this day where, oh, the Natives and the white folks got together and cooperated and gave thanks for everything and were able to celebrate their differences,” Danielle Lucero, director of the UW American Indian Student Commission, said. “I feel like that story of cooperation is part of the founding of this country and that idea of Thanksgiving is hard to let go of.”

At the idealistic First Thanksgiving we speak of, do we know for certain why the Wampanoags were there? Were they there to enjoy a nice meal with their dearly beloved, though greedy and violent, European friends? Or was the tribe perhaps brought there by force and threat? Were they there to try to get help from the settlers to aid their tribes dying of disease and conflict since settler arrival? Records conflict with each other, and many points of history here are unclear, but the track record of how federal government has treated Native people so far doesn’t give me much hope that this was a dinner of purely kind intentions.  

“If you know something about the real history behind the First Thanksgiving, it’s a lot more complicated,” Chadwick Allen, a UW English and American Indian studies professor and UW associate vice provost for faculty advancement, said.“So there is this Native harvest festival, celebrating their survival and having the communities coming together, but the political context is really complicated from the very beginning.”

In the years following the sweet picnic between the colonists and Natives, there were mass  slaughterings of Native people which massacred hundreds of people. The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote after the Pequot massacre of 1637 that it was “a day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 [Native] men, women and children.” These facts, just the tip of the iceberg on which Europeans killed and overpowered Native people, show that the unbreakable friendship implied in the tradition of Thanksgiving is looking at just one part of the history book. 

“We like to believe that we can celebrate our differences through finding common ground, and cooperating with each other, and building something that is representative of both those cultures, and think that America celebrates that it's this melting pot or salad, or that diversity is something that we can accept here,”  Lucero said. “But we know that’s just not the case.”

Thanksgiving does offer a unique opportunity for many: the chance to have a day off and to be with family. That sentiment itself is a positive one. But not every family can celebrate together, which is largely due to some of America’s oppressive systems. From the imprisonment of Native men, to the displacement of families and tribes across the country, and to the lack of federal recognition given to tribes, the idea of Thanksgiving being a “just perfect day” ignores a heavy part of history.  

If you haven’t heard of the facts about the relationship between Native Americans and the American government, this is a time to learn. As you pile your food on your plate tomorrow, remember that Thanksgiving is both a time to be grateful for all you have, and also a time to remember the horrors that took place to get here.  

Additionally, if you are looking for another way to celebrate the harvest season, the Intellectual House will be hosting an event called Taking Back the Dinner event this evening, Nov. 22, from 2 to 8:30 p.m. Come and enjoy workshops, a movie, and indigenous dishes from around North America.

Reach contributing writer Grace Harmon at development@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @grace_viv

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