Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Overcoming Thanksgiving Day Myths

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.—and it is the 400th anniversary of what is often said to be the first Thanksgiving Day. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Native People called Wampanoag* shared an autumn harvest feast that became the basis of the common Thanksgiving story.

November has also once again this year been designated as National Native American Heritage Month. In light of the latter, many of us USAmericans need to overcome various Thanksgiving Day myths that have long been abroad in the land.

Acknowledging Thanksgiving Day Myths

Kaitlin Curtice is a Potawatomi woman and a Christian. In her 2020 book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God, she writes how she and other Native Americans are “bombarded with Thanksgiving myths” every November and how hard that is.

Curtice writes, “My non-Native friends have to understand that the myths told at Thanksgiving only continue the toxic stereotypes and hateful language that has always been spewed at us” (pp. 67, 68)

“The Thanksgiving Myth” by Native Circle is explained here in a 2019 post. The authors write, “The big problem with the American Thanksgiving holiday is its false association with American Indian people; the infamous 'Indians and pilgrims' myth.”

They continue, “It is good to celebrate Thanksgiving, to be thankful for your blessings. It is not good to distort history, to falsely portray the origin of this holiday and lie about the truth of its actual inception.”

David Silverman, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in Native American and Colonial American history, tells the true American Thanksgiving story in This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving (2019).

As UCC pastor Jane McBride writes in her helpful Christian Century review, Silverman begins his lengthy book “by shattering the myth of the first Thanksgiving.” Then in his concluding paragraph, Silverman asserts,

The truth exposes the traditional tale of the First Thanksgiving as a myth rather than history, and so let us declare it dead except as a subject for the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture (p. 427).

References to Thanksgiving myths are not just recent incidences, though. Back in 1986, Chuck Larsen, a high school history teacher in the state of Washington, wrote how the Thanksgiving stories most children have learned are “a mixture of both history and myth.”

Larson emphasized the “need to try to reach beyond the myths to some degree of historical truth.” He also said, “When you build a lesson on only half of the information, then you are not teaching the whole truth. That is why I used the word myth.”**

Thankfully, there are many more resources available now for learning the truth of the first Thanksgiving than were available in 1986, so there is no excuse for us to hang on to the old myths.

Overcoming Thanksgiving Day Myths

There is an abundance of ways to celebrate Thanksgiving Day without reiterating the Thanksgiving myths, which tend to foster white Christian nationalism and to whitewash the harsh mistreatment of Native Americans.

We can begin to overcome those myths by listening to the scholars such as Silverman and/or to Native American voices such as Larsen’s as found in his article linked to in the second footnote below.

Then, we can overcome Thanksgiving myths by focusing primarily on the many blessings we have received from Creator God, who dearly loves each person and all the people groups in God’s good Creation.


* “This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later. Long marginalized and misrepresented in U.S. history, the Wampanoags are bracing for the 400th anniversary of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621” (headlines of a Nov. 4 Washington Post article).

** Larsen, who has Native American ancestry, wrote “Introduction for Teachers” to help them in teaching the truth about Thanksgiving Day. That instructive piece has been reproduced in many places, but here is a link to a PDF version. It is well worth reading.


  1. Leroy, "there's no truth like the truth you don't want to hear." Many historian-colleagues have said something to the effect that at some point we have to stop hedging or withholding the truth of the past from the children. Problem is, even most grown-ups don't receive the truth, and some refuse it when it's presented. It needs to be presented better. Larsen's statement makes good sense.
    I'm glad you cited these helpful Native American responses. There's much to say about the sheer presumption borne of ignorance among the early Europeans: yes, the Puritans/Pilgrims really were more medieval than modern, lived in bad neighborhoods in England and in New England early on, and truly struggled against the dire and constant threat of starvation and death (death pervades their prayers, sermons, and letters--something full-modern relatively well-nourished and vaccinated Americans need to contemplate--aren't we doing more of that just now?). And yes, they seriously risked everything out of obedience to their covenant God; and, tsk-tsk we might think, they really should have read their Bibles better as to how to love their enemies, love mercy, do justice, and all that. Yes, just so for us, too.
    In my colonial history and immigration classes, I've pondered the riddle of how people-groups respond to forced changes, and how their options, their choices in the worst cases, reach a point of "yes-no", when the only real choice is to respond to the threat directly confronting them, knowing that one choice assures death while the other gives a chance, with the results uncertain. Does the Syrian or Kurdish father keep his family in the 2010s battle zones, or, given the smallest chance, opt to lead them out sooner than later?
    Well, what may one think about this? We're getting better at telling the truth about Amerindians and Europeans not getting along together, and about other instances in which they tried. That "choice" thing, we should remember, was not a dilemma just for the Pilgrims; it was a continual dilemma and dire struggle across several centuries as surviving Native Americans were forced into hard choices that might permit life rather than death. We know how that came out generally, but we need to study the particular instances over the long term, too. I think your Native American correspondents are enriching our understanding and hopefully our wisdom on the matter. Gratitude even in grinding reality is to acknowledge that God can still be found there.

    1. Thank so much, Dr. Summers, for taking the time to post lengthy and thoughtful comments. Since you are a historian, which I am not, I greatly appreciate your comments.

  2. About an hour ago, a local Thinking Friend sent me an email saying,

    "Agreed. But Wm Bradford's account is also a part of history and deserves reverence, too. Different perspectives enrich our understanding."

    1. After reading this TFs email, I went back to read (again) what Bradford said. (William Bradford, 1590~1657, was Governor of the Plymouth Colony intermittently for about 30 years from 1621 until his death.) Here is part of what he wrote about the thanksgiving feast of 1621:

      "[O]ur harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."

      Interestingly, soon after reading the email, I saw the following “Voice of the Day words” (on the daily email I receive from Sojourners) that Adam Ericksen, a UCC pastor in Oregon, wrote in 2012, “The truth of Thanksgiving, indeed, the truth of human history, is found when we listen to the voice of our victims.”

      Here is part of what was in the link to Native Circle, which I included above in the blog post:

      “Officially, the holiday we know as 'Thanksgiving' actually came into existence in the year 1637. Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed this first official day of Thanksgiving and feasting to celebrate the return of the colony's men who had arrived safely from what is now Mystic, Connecticut. They had gone there to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children, and Mr. Winthrop decided to dedicate an official day of 'thanksgiving' complete with a feast to 'give thanks' for their great 'victory'. This thanksgiving celebration became a custom that was observed every year. In 1777, all 13 of the first United States colonies held Thanksgiving celebrations - a continuation of that first 'celebration' in 1637. In 1789, President George Washington declared November 26th a 'National Day of Thanksgiving'. And on October 3rd, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally made it official with a 'Thanksgiving Proclamation', declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. Thus, you can see that the American Thanksgiving holiday we know today is indelibly tied to that 'first thanksgiving' in 1637, which celebrated the massacre of hundreds of Native people.”

      Governor Bradford was a supporter of the Pequot War that produced the massacre of 1637. I think we need different perspectives to enrich our understanding, but I am not sure how much we should reverence the words and deeds of the British colonizers.

    2. In response to above reply to my local TF, he wrote,

      "There is no single history, I think. Folks view the past from many angles, and many versions, often partial, come down to us. Yes, I revere the good in Bradford, even as I condemn his evil. I revere the Bible even though passages innumerable have vile sentiments. I try to understand the perspective and circumstances in which the various authors and editors transmitted their experience to us. I think Bradford's 'History' is a valuable addition to our understanding of the many histories.

      "You write, 'Governor Bradford was a supporter of the Pequot War that produced the massacre of 1637." OK. Hillary Clinton voted for W's War in Iraq. Is it possible people, given a chance, learn from errors?"

    3. Here, then, is my second email response to him:

      "I guess I'll not write more about what you said in your first paragraph, other than to link to a NYTimes article from 2017 that, of course, supports my position: Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong - The New York Times (

      "I get the point of your second paragraph, and although I was a strong supporter of Hillary in 2016, I was long critical of her hawkishness (as well as her support of Israel more than Palestine), including, of course, her vote to support the Iraq War in 2002. But in 2015, and maybe much sooner, she admitted that she was mistaken in that vote. Yes, I think that she, and many others, learned from her/their errors. But there is no indication whatsoever, as far as I know, that Gov. Bradford or Gov. Winthrop, who famously spoke about the 'city set on a hill,' ever changed their attitudes toward the Native Americans. From what I have read, they believed that the slaughter of the 'savage' Indians was a part of God's plan for the establishment of God's Kingdom in the New World.

      "Also, I hope you noted that my blog post about Thanksgiving was written in the context of this being National Native American Heritage Month."

  3. Thanks Leroy for reminding me of the True meaning of Thanksgiving.
    This is one of my favorite Holidays and Colossians 3:17 is one of my favorite Bible verses.
    We need to be Thankful to GOD for our many Blessings every day,but it's Good to have a 'Special' day set aside to remind us All.
    Many Blessings to All,
    John Carr

    1. Thanks, John Tim, for your comments -- and among many other things, I am thankful for you and your many years of faithful service as a Christmas businessman and lay preacher.

  4. Yesterday afternoon, Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago emailed the following comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about Thanksgiving, the origin of which is largely myth.

    "A few days ago, I heard a Native American woman say that Native Americans prefer the term a 'Day of Giving Thanks' to 'Thanksgiving.' She also considered the myths around Thanksgiving to be offensive to Native Americans."

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Eric.

      While there seems not to be a lot of publicity about it, today is referred to by some Native Americans as the National Day of Mourning. Here is what Wikipedia says about that:

      "The National Day of Mourning is an annual demonstration, held on the fourth Thursday in November, that aims to educate the public about Native Americans in the United States, notably the Wampanoag and other tribes of the Eastern United States; dispel myths surrounding the Thanksgiving story in the United States; and raise awareness toward historical and ongoing struggles facing Native American tribes. The first National Day of Mourning demonstration was held in 1970."

      This morning, NPR broadcast/posted "Native American tribes are gathering in Plymouth to mourn on Thanksgiving." (Here is the link: .)

  5. I happened to have read a Smithsonian Magazine article on this subject shortly before reading your blog. Their article interpreted the feast of 1621 as an uneasy alliance building experience between natives who had been decimated by diseases brought over by Europeans, which left them vulnerable to pressure from other tribes, and the colonists who had suffered major losses to disease themselves. They agree the brief accounts no doubt hide more than they disclose about the days spent together. Neither side knew in 1621 where it would lead, we have a responsibility to understand why native Americans consider "Thanksgiving" as a time for mourning. You can read more here:

    I am struck by the comment above that "Thanksgiving" actually began in 1637 to celebrate a massacre of hundreds of native Americans. Just as the 1619 Project has run into the Jim Crow myth that slaves loved the security of being slaves, so it appears any 1621 Project would run into the same kind of fierce resistance. Even if the Pilgrims and native Americans did have a happy meal together, looking at the next 400 years of American history, no one has a right to celebrate that dinner today. Somehow we need to find a way to make an honest harvest celebration out of a veiled celebration of genocide. Considering that we cannot even manage a pandemic without floods of misinformation being unleashed, it is past time to admit that America needs a major reset. Otherwise the ancient shock known as "Babylon the Great is fallen" will be echoed in "America the Exceptional is fallen." As one of my college professors used to paraphrase George Santayana, "Those who do not mourn history are condemned to repeat it."

    1. Craig, thanks for your helpful comments. I hadn't seen the Smithsonian article, which was posted just the day before my blog post, but it seemed to confirm much of what I had in my blog article.

      Thanks, too, for your thought-provoking second paragraph. I hadn't heard that paraphrase of Santayana's oft-quoted statement, but I think it is quite powerful.

  6. Thanks, Leroy, for these Thanksgiving thoughts. I particularly appreciated your lifting up Kaitlyn Curtice's book _Native_, which we read here at First Church of Christ Congregational in West Hartford, CT, where I'm serving as bridge senior pastor. Much peace to you on this Thanksgiving weekend. Greetings to June.

  7. Yesterday I also received the following comments by email from Thinking Friend Virginia Hurt in New Mexico:

    "Thank you so very much, Leroy, for this documented, thoughtful, introduction of the true Thanksgiving story of our nation. I have long known that the myth I learned about in elementary school and following, was basically untrue. During my years as English as a Second Language teacher at Window Rock Elementary School in (now) Dene' Nation (within) Arizona, I developed an oral comparison-contrast unit for fifth grade students, using a Scholastic Book Services biography of Squanto and a souvenir copy of William Bradford's Journal. Later in the year, I showed a film about Ishi, the last survivor of a native group in California. We then used various what-came-to-be-called 'graphic organizers,' to compare and contrast the lives of Squanto and Ishi. A few years ago the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) provided a truer version of Squanto's story in its monthly magazine."