November 15, 2012

Thanksgiving: What our History Teacher didn’t Tell Us. ~ Maja Despot

The Real Thanksgiving.

For the most part, we think of Thanksgiving as a time of gratitude associated with happy Native Americans and Pilgrims sharing in a big feast together.

While that may have been the case in some instances, we tend to forget the dark and violent fate brought onto the Native American tribes by the arrival of European settlers.

The story of the real Thanksgiving is not all about smiles and turkey—although the turkeys don’t make it out alive either, of course!

The story starts around 1608, when a group of Native Americans trusted the European traders who had come to Massachusetts. When they decided to trade with the English they were taken as prisoners.

With a boat full of the Patuxet tribe, chained and bounded for slavery, the Englishmen sailed back to their home country. What they left behind was an epidemic of smallpox that wiped out the Patuxet that managed to escape being captured for enslavement.

Squanto was one of the Native Americans captured by the English. After 10 heartbreaking  years of enslavement in Spain, he made his way to England and negotiated for his freedom, and finally made his way back home. However, there was only more heartbreak awaiting him with the realization that his tribe and family had been completely wiped out by disease.

When the Pilgrims reached Massachusetts around 1620, Squanto was the only remaining Patuxet Indian. Regardless of the immense pain caused by his previous contact with the English people, Squanto found it in his heart to use the English he had learned during his time in Europe to negotiate a peace treaty between the Wampanoag nation and the Pilgrims. He also helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in the new world. Squanto taught the new settlers how to plant their own corn and where the best fishing locations were. At the end of their first year in the new world, the Pilgrims held a large feast to honor the Wampanoags and Squanto.

However, good times soon turned to bad.

With word spreading throughout England of successes in the new world, Puritans began arriving in huge numbers. These settlers did not need the help of the Native Americans as the Pilgrims once did. They viewed the natives as savages with strange rituals and culture. Soon after their arrival, once communal lands were seized by both Puritan and British settlers.

The settlers captured those natives they deemed strong enough for slavery and killed off the rest. The children and grandchildren of those settlers and Native Americans that had once feasted together were now destroying each other.

The fighting continued on with many innocent Native Americans falling victim to the greed of the English settlers. Thanksgiving soon became a celebration for the victory over the Native Americans, whom the English viewed as heathen savages. The natives not only had their lives disrupted by disease but were exploited, enslaved and massacred by the thousands.

Historians estimate an 80-90 percent population decline after the arrival of the European settlers.

The reality of what happened during this time is a far stretch from the happy feast associated with Thanksgiving. The meaning of this post is not to ruin the holiday of Thanksgiving, but to give light to the reality of history, history that is sometimes left out of books in schools. In order to learn and progress, we must look back in time and accept the faults of our own country in hopes of never repeating them. We can no longer pretend that the the founders and first-comers of this country did not single-handedly destroy the natives.

Native Americans are a group of diverse tribes, all with their own unique cultures and traditions, but what brings them together is their violent demise.

They didn’t just contribute to American history in the form of Squanto’s generosity and legacy. Native Americans contributed in the areas of horticulture, science and medicine.

So, while you are enjoying some, er, Tofurkey and pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, share the real story of Thanksgiving with those around you. Why? Not to be “a bummer.” Because, rather, awareness is the key to progress. It can be easy to overlook the contributions of the Native Americans in the earliest years of this country, but in remembering and being grateful for their contributions to the foundation of this country, we can use their stories as lessons in ahimsa and compassion.

Because we truly have so much to learn.


Maja Despot is a college student trying to figure out her place in the world, while making a positive impact. She’s a veggie, a blogger and mother of a feisty puppy named Minnie, whom she absolutely adores. She enjoys yoga, crafts and learning. Maja came to United States in 1997 from the former Yugoslavia. Six months later she was fluent in English. She’s currently studying Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and hopes to use it to give back to the world.



Ed: Brianna Bemel



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