MVSKOKE RESERVATION – The American Thanksgiving is a holiday that has a long, and complicated history with Native Americans, particularly those of the Wampanoag Nation. Celebrated on the fourth Thursday in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday that does not have any specific religious observances like Christmas or Hanukkah. Rather, it is a holiday derived from a harvest feast celebrated by early European colonizers. Unfortunately, its significance also originates from a history of broken promises, violence and enslavement.
What is referred to as the “first Thanksgiving” in North America took place in 1621 when the Wampanoag people provided provisions for the Pilgrims after a harsh winter left them with little food to survive. American children are taught that the Wampanoag people broke bread with the Pilgrims, thus starting a new tradition. However, this account is contested as false by the Wampanoag people and historians alike.
In the following years the Wampanoag people would suffer greatly due to disease, a period known as “The Great Dying”. The Wampanoag people faced enslavement from European settlers and were pushed off of their homelands in what is now modern-day Massachusetts.
While to most Americans the holiday, Thanksgiving procures images of food, family and fellowship, to the Wampanoag Native Americans, it is a day of mourning. The first National Day of Mourning protest was founded by Wampanoag leader and Native American activist Wamsutta Frank James (Aquinnah Wampanoag) in 1970.
James is notable for penning a written speech that detailed his tribe’s account of what is regarded as the first Thanksgiving. The speech was supposed to be read at a banquet hosted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that commemorated the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims. However, James never got the opportunity to read the speech he wrote due to its content.
Although the origins of the holiday mark a dark chapter for the Wampanoag people, it is now recognized as a time of mourning and a day to bring awareness to contemporary Native American issues. Speakers at the National Day of Mourning protests have brought awareness to issues like the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement (MMIW), Indian Boarding School awareness, and the protection of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
Within the past century, Thanksgiving has evolved into a holiday of food and fellowship celebrated among Indigenous, and non Indigenous families alike. Contemporary Thanksgivings are much more commercialized. According to WalletHub an estimated $949 million will be spent on Thanksgiving turkeys every year, with an estimated 40 million turkeys consumed.
While Thanksgiving was first annually-proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, many former presidents also made Thanksgiving day declarations. The holiday was moved back a week to the fourth Thursday in November by President Franklin Roosevelt to give more space for Christmas, and Christmas shopping.
The turkey would come to find its way as the holiday’s center piece staple during the 19th century due to its availability as a resource. Although it is possible the fowl was present at the first Thanksgiving, it is contested among historians. Another detail lost to time.
Most businesses, organizations and tribes are closed for the holiday, encouraging employees to spend time with their families. This includes the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Thanksgiving has also found its way into popular culture and media. The television series “Friends” is most notable for its annual Thanksgiving episodes produced during its initial run on primetime television. The beloved “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ‘ television special aired in 1973 and aired annually during the holidays until its acquisition by Apple TV+ in 2020. Although the Peanuts specials are not officially broadcasted annually anymore, the company has given non subscribers a free window to watch them within the past couple years around the holidays.
Another pop culture staple that ballooned from the observance of the holiday was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. The event is well known for its massive, colorful balloons, elite marching bands, and celebrity appearances. The parade is broadcasted to millions of viewers every year.
In spite of commercialism and the annual television specials, Thanksgiving has also become a day of giving where individuals give back to those in the community who are less fortunate. This includes Mvskoke citizen Terry Bemo-Metcalf and his father, Terry Metcalf. On Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, they made deliveries with free meals for those in need. The free service was open to anyone who asked for a meal, regardless of their need.
“We just try to feed as many as we can with what we got,” Metcalf said.
Metcalf and his team of volunteers have served people from many backgrounds including Indigenous, and non Indigenous alike for the past three years. They typically serve veterans, elders, and families from various sizes and socio-economic backgrounds. For some, Metcalf’s company means more than the food he delivers.
“Just being able to see people smile, I know that this world we live in now, you can look online at any point and time and get a little sad. We just want to provide something uplifting.” Metcalf said.
The historical events that are commonly recognized as the origins of Thanksgiving are not the same as the folktale told to children. For some, it is a day of joy and togetherness. For others, it is a day of pain and mourning. However, the day has come to be celebrated by Native, and non Natives alike. Most importantly, it is a day where activists bring attention to issues affecting their communities, as well as a day for volunteers to give back and serve those in need.
For those seeking locations serving free Thanksgiving meals or food boxes, they can be found on Feeding America’s website, feedingamerica.org. Donations can also be made on the site.
To learn more about the National Day of Mourning Protest and the issues it brings awareness to, visit culturalsurvival.org.