On the fourth Thursday in November of each year, millions of households across the country gather with family and friends for a feast.
The Thanksgiving celebration in America is one often associated with merrymaking, joyous overeating, and imbibing with those closest to you. But understanding the actual event that inspired the holiday has been warped and misconstrued throughout history.
For members of the Wampanoag Nation and Indigenous people throughout America, the holiday that is still taught in schools and marked on calendars is a damaging reminder of the atrocities they underwent (and continue to suffer).
Sassafras Earth Education, an Indigenous nonprofit that offers mentoring programs and outdoor educational experiences for Island youth, held a discussion on “The Ungrateful Taking” at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.
The term “ungrateful taking” refers to the mass taking of land, life, culture, possessions, and identity of Native people by European settlers.
Audrey Van der Krogt spoke as the wife of Todd Mayhew, whose family (among several other familiar Island names) were some of the first Europeans to settle on Martha’s Vineyard.
She told a story of rickety rowboat rides out to Menemsha Pond with her husband and her father-in-law to pick beach plums.
“Year after year we would go to that spot that they told me was Grandmother Mayhew’s land,” Van der Krogt said.
During this period, Van der Krogt was also working at Sassafras, and was riding back from a field trip with David Two Arrows Vanderhoop and a group of children when they pulled the van over near that same beach plum picking spot.
“David said this is the tribal Wampanoag common lands, one of the only places still left that we can have ritual and can caretake, and the land can just be the land,” she said. “I felt deeply ashamed that I had picked berries that were not mine to pick. I want to say sorry for that.”
Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and co-founder of Sassafras, said the majority of land on the East Coast was stolen from the Wampanoag and other Indigenous nations during European colonization.
“We are all on stolen land somehow, someway — maybe you didn’t steal it, but someone did. Because, to my knowledge, none of our people actually gave up their land,” Vanderhoop said.
He described a different kind of collective feeling in his household on that Thursday in November each year.
“It’s a day of mourning. It reminds us about what has been taken from us,” he continued.
As a Wampanoag man in 2021, Vanderhoop said, he is frustrated to see that the origin myth of Thanksgiving continues to be promulgated in American schools and at American dinner tables.
He stressed that he doesn’t want to detract from the positive values people find in the celebration itself, but wants folks to understand that the conventional story is a documented fallacy.
“The false narrative being taught in schools and at home is causing harm to my people,” Vanderhoop said. “Not only this holiday, but the whole myth of the origins of this country.”
During his talk, Vanderhoop dispelled several commonly held misconceptions about how the first interactions between Native people and European settlers transpired.
Native Americans are often portrayed as docile and willing to give up their land, Vanderhoop said, but when looking at the 400 years between 1492 and the 1900s, the number of Indigenous people killed either by disease or by white settlers with the intent of forceful eradication speaks for itself.
“One hundred seventy-five million people … think about that number,” Vanderhoop said.
“It’s the classic Thanksgiving image, but friendly relations are by no means how the indigenous people were treated by the foreigners that came here.”
In 1621, only a year after the Pilgrims arrived, their numbers had been cut in half. According to Vanderhoop, two great leaders of the Massasoit and Patuxet tribes, Ousamequin and Tisquantum (often known as Squanto), decided to teach the Europeans how to live on the land and farm successfully.
To celebrate that year’s harvest, the settlers were firing their rifles, which drew the attention of Ousamequin and his warriors.
Upon arriving at the colonist camp, Ousamequin left behind a group of warriors to keep watch “because they were not to be trusted, as was known,” Vanderhoop said. “It was a very minor incident.”
Apart from reveling in the success of the year’s crop, Vanderhoop noted, these Thanksgiving feasts also celebrated the domination of many villages and the forceful seizure of Native land.
“They were brutal parties — post-genocidal events in which the white terrorists celebrated their easy victories over slaughtered villages,” he said. “There are numerous accounts of these Thanksgiving celebrations where white people played soccer with native peoples’ heads.”
Hundreds of years later, at the height of the Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, marking the last Thursday of November each year as a national holiday,
According to Vanderhoop, the proclamation intended to unify a divided nation from the damage wrought by the Civil War. But it solidified the erroneous image of American Thanksgiving for hundreds of years to come.
This deep historical trauma continues to plague Indigenous communities, Vanderhoop said, and the damage to culture and identity is perpetuated by origin myths like that of Thanksgiving. “We are at the top of every single negative list: drug abuse, alcohol, suicide. That is only part of the harm that still continues today,” he said.
Vanderhoop’s final plea was for listeners to take this information with them to their dinner tables and spread awareness of the plight that Indigenous people continue to face.
Alexis Moreis, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Chappaquiddick, said before the Massachusetts Indian Enfranchisement Act of 1869, the Chappaquiddick tribe had 800 acres of land allotted to reservations, woodlands, and cleared land. Today, the tribe doesn’t own a single acre.
Knowing this fact, Moreis is working to promote a concept called rematriation. The Wampanoag community follows a matrilineal line, meaning that land is passed through the mother’s family bloodline. She advocates for returning land to the Wampanoag matrons in trusts, so the Native people can steward their native land and celebrate their longstanding cultures and practices.
“We are benefiting from 12,000 years of Wampanoag people living here and taking care of this place, Noepe. We give land to the conservation groups all the time — why are we not giving land back to the Wampanoag people?” Moreis said.
Aquinnah tribal ranger and Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal member Michael Sellitti began by introducing himself in the Wampanoag language, and acknowledging that the land everyone had spread their blankets and chairs on belongs traditionally to the Wampanoag village of Sanchiacantacket (Sengekontacket).
“All of Noepe [Martha’s Vineyard] is Wampanoag territory, with seven or so villages that thrived for generations before [European] contact. All of what we now know as Massachusetts, and a great chunk of what we know as the Northeast, was Wampanoag territory,” Sellitti said. “It was their naivety and their good nature that allowed those visitors to become the power that they are, and now we must unfortunately battle to take back all that was taken from us.”