Growing up, attorney Anita Shifflett celebrated Thanksgiving in the same way as most other Americans, by getting together with relatives to enjoy a hearty meal.
“Thanksgiving meant family,” said Shifflett, a card-carrying member of the Native American Lumby tribe. “You had to go home for Thanksgiving. You had to go back to the tribe. My grandmother used to cook the turkey in the yard because there was no oven big enough. You looked forward to it because you were going to see all your cousins.”
Shifflett’s activist grandfather marched on Washington in favor of Indian rights and her family tree is showcased in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.. However, one subject her family never discussed at these large gatherings was the long-ago event that inspired Thanksgiving.
“We never discussed the Indians, the pilgrims,” she said. “We never discussed our role as Indians in Thanksgiving. Thinking about it now, I do think it’s strange. It’s something the adults could have done to educate a whole generation of grandchildren, but they didn’t.”
Native people had lived on the East Coast of the United States for thousands of years before the European settlers arrived. A ship carrying 101 men, women and children crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620 and settled an area that is now known as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. These people, who established what became known as the Plymouth Colony, were English Protestants who wanted to break with the Church of England.
Most Americans associate the federal holiday — which is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November — with the happy occasion when these pilgrims and American Indians came together for a grand feast in 1621 to celebrate the Plymouth Colony’s first successful harvest. They ate, sang, danced and played ball games.
Today, Americans still gather with family and friends to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast and, for many, watching football on television, or playing the sport in the backyard, is an integral part of the holiday.
When American children are taught the Thanksgiving story, they learn of the strong friendship between the native peoples and the colonists. Students are introduced to Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who helped the pilgrims survive those first harsh winters by showing them how to successfully plant crops in this “New World”.
More to the story
However, for Native Americans, there is more to the story.
Many now see Thanksgiving as the beginning of the end of life as the native peoples had known it before the arrival of the pilgrims, who began to lay claim to more and more land.
For example, when Squanto returned to his tribe years later, he learned the Patuxet, as well as many other coastal New England tribes, had been exterminated by a plague. Native Americans had no natural immunity to the infectious diseases the Europeans had brought with them.
And each year at Thanksgiving, members of the United American Indians of New England meet at Plymouth Rock for a day of mourning. They remember the victims of the Mystic, Connecticut massacre of 1637, when colonists from Plymouth, Massachusetts, burned a Pequot village to the ground, killing hundreds of women, children and older men. The only Pequot survivors were warriors, who’d been out on their own raiding party.
“In 1975, the official number of Pequot living in Connecticut was just 21 and similar declines in native population took place throughout New England,” said Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “An estimated 300,000 Indians died by violence and even more were displaced in New England over the next decades [after 1637].”
Zotigh believes the real story of Thanksgiving needs to be taught to American children by the time they graduate from high school.
“Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half truth because there’s more to it,” he said. “There should be a balance. It should be a happy time, yet accuracy should also be a quotient in celebrating Thanksgiving.”
The harsh realities endured by native peoples in the decades following that first joint Thanksgiving are why Zotigh, like many Native Americans, has less-than-positive feelings about the holiday.
“Do I celebrate Thanksgiving?” he said. “No, I don’t celebrate, but I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it’s the same in many native households.”
These days, Thanksgiving invokes a sense of nostalgia for Anita Shifflett. Thanks to an influx of federal construction money, her once-poor North Carolina-based tribe is now more affluent than ever. And with that affluence, has come accelerated assimilation.
“There’s actually a sadness I feel at Thanksgiving now because it’s not the way it used to be celebrated in our tribe,” she said. “I really feel sad that my one son cannot experience Thanksgiving like I did as a child because it was so much about family then.”
This year, Shifflett and her four siblings are celebrating Thanksgiving with their individual nuclear families. Shifflett, who is engaged to marry a non-Indian, will have dinner with her fiancée’s family. However, one member of her family is continuing the Thanksgiving tradition. Shifflett’s mother, Mary, who will be 80 years old next month, still plans to return to the tribe for Thanksgiving, just as she always has throughout her life.