Historical Parallels: The Importance of Listening to Indigenous Voices on Thanksgiving

(Photo: Visit Mississippi via Flickr)

This Thanksgiving, amidst the most merciless attack our motherland has faced since the 2020 Artsakh War, I can’t help but draw parallels between our people’s struggles and the struggles of the Native Americans, especially during the holiday season. For many, Thanksgiving is a time of love and laughter, but for the Native community, it’s a reminder of the barbarity and genocide they have faced and continue to face for generations. 

As Armenians, it is important for us to not only stand up for the injustice of our people, but for the injustices of people everywhere. Fortunately, today the perspectives of Native Americans regarding Thanksgiving have had increased exposure, revealing that the story of gracious visitors and hospitable inhabitants is not exactly accurate. However, even with the slew of advocacy, the history of Thanksgiving, which should be a positive holiday with a positive message, is still a romanticization of an encounter between Englishmen and Native Americans.  

Growing up, I fell victim to the “shiny” story of Thanksgiving, while adorning a faux-feathered headdress and cutting out construction paper captain hats. Looking back, it was just plain wrong. Softened textbooks tell the mawkish tale of a group of English colonists called the Pilgrims who left home in search of religious freedom. Aboard a ship called the Mayflower, the courageous Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, befriending the amenable Wampanoag tribe, through the means of an English-speaking Native named Squanto. The holiday itself is supposedly a celebration of the harvest feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, giving thanks for their collective diligence and hard work. 

This beautified version of Thanksgiving is yet another case of Native American erasure, purely for the sake of white fragility, underscoring yet again the importance of the white man’s history over any other group. Not only does it glorify the Pilgrims and their “heroic” journey, it expunges the sheer brutality that occurred before, during and after, the most notable being the true story of “Squanto,” the supposed middleman of the two groups. His story is far more convoluted than the glossed over information of elementary textbooks. 

“Tisquantum, known as Squanto did play a large role in helping the Pilgrims, as American children are taught. His people, the Patuxet, a band of the Wampanoag tribe, had lived on the site where the Pilgrims settled,” said Plimoth Plantation spokesperson Kate Sheehan to the New York Times. “When they arrived, he became a translator for them in diplomacy and trade with other native people, and showed them the most effective method for planting corn and the best locations to fish.” 

Though what is learned is true according to Sheehan, it is a mere blip in the rest of the story. Tisquantum was actually captured and sold into slavery in Malaga, Spain by English explorer Thomas Hunt in 1614. Because of this, he was able to pick up the English language. Upon returning to New England in 1619, he discovered that his entire tribe had died from smallpox. Two years later, he encountered the Pilgrims. 

Tisquantum died one year later, but unfortunately, more callousness followed his passing. According to Dennis Zotigh of the Smithsonian Magazine, the epoch of relative harmony ended when “near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies and Narragansett and Mohegan allies” in 1637. 

Zotigh continues, stating: “Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. […] In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated three hundred thousand Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England over the next few decades.”

Upon doing this research to figure out why we celebrate this holiday anyway, I am left shocked and confused by the cruel treatment towards the people who had cared for the land long before the supposed “founders of the New World.” They knew that the Earth is not something to be found, because the land does not belong to us; we belong to it. I hope that in our modern age, we take the opportunity to educate ourselves on the happenings of the world. Staying informed is a vital civic virtue, and understanding our personal ties to our communities and beyond helps contribute to the greater good. By learning from the mistakes and successes of the people who came before us, we can apply this knowledge to make sense of our current world.

While Thanksgiving has evolved over time and is now synonymous with gratitude and being surrounded by friends and family, it is still necessary to acknowledge its origin and understand the real history of barbaric colonization and its ramifications. Of course, I am in no position to tell you how to feel about the day, because those conclusions can only be made by the ancestors of the Natives affected. However, as an Armenian, I can draw historical parallels. I know what it feels like to be called an “occupier” by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I know how relentless we are in always choosing to fight assimilation. I know that Native Americans feel the same way. All natives, both Armenian and of the Americas, understand that survival lives in our bones and our respective genocides bind us together. And nevertheless, we are here. And no matter what, we will flourish. 

Melody Seraydarian

Melody Seraydarian

Melody Seraydarian is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She is an active member of the AYF Hollywood “Musa Ler” Chapter. Melody also interns for the Armenian Bar Association and volunteers for various political causes and campaigns, while working on other writing and design projects.

19 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. Armenians should be especially sensitive to the genocide and systemic oppression of Native Americans within their Ancestral Homeland.

  2. “Native American erasure, purely for the sake of white fragility”

    Oh God, not again.

    Horrific anti-American article filled with a far-left narrative which I will never subscribe to, the worst of it being the conflation of the settlement of Europeans in the Americas with the planned, organized and executed Genocide of Armenians by the Turks.

    This Thanksgiving, our family will be grateful for the America that was founded by European Christians, and which is the greatest, strongest and most wealthiest nation the world has ever seen, and which despite the misguided and brainwashed ingrates within its borders, continues to be tolerant of them. And young Armenian women need to get off of radical leftist social media ASAP and form families for the sake of their future, as well as to preserve their own sanity.

    • Yep the greatest country in the world which isn’t lifting a finger to help the first people to accept Christianity in their time of need.

      Oh God, not again. You got that part right!

    • I think you’re missing the point. You’re going off on some culture war tangent about “far leftists” and “anti-Americanism” when the article is really not about any of this. As many opportunities as American has provided to many of its citizens—including us Armenians—you have to have the ability to also accept that it has done harm to many groups as well. This narrative that America is this star-spangled universally good wonderland where nothing has ever gone wrong is not only false but just unproductive. Where does this get us? Isn’t the purest form of patriotism wanting to fix problems in your country in order to make it better? How does unwaveringly clinging to the past help America? Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of any self-proclaimed patriot to make America a better country? But moreover, your comment doesn’t address any of the article’s content, it just tries to bait. Do you deny any of the statements of fact? Do you deny that millions of Native Americans lived in America before the arrival of Europeans? Do you deny that the Europeans seized almost all of these peoples’ land? Do you deny that millions of Native Americans died during the course of this country’s establishment and growth? Well in reality it doesn’t matter if one denies these because there is ample documentation of these facts and they are well established in the historical timeline. Now to the comparisons with the Armenian Genocide. Firstly Genocide Watch, the foremost international NGO studying genocide and atrocity crimes characterizes the erasure of America’s native population as a genocide (see http://www.genocidewatch.com/single-post/country-report-usa). Examine for a moment the definition of genocide under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II stipulates the criteria for genocide, namely acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” including “killing members of the group” (Art. II (a)) and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” (Art. II (c)), among others. There is no sound good faith historical argument on how the treatment and conditions of Native Americans do not fit into this definition. You also miss the broader point of comparison that both the Armenians and the Native Americans had vast areas of land appropriated from them. It’s possible to accept that America has been a prosperous country that has provided opportunities to many while also accepting that the founding of the country was marked by terrible atrocities. It’s not a black and white issue and saying that wrongs were committed throughout history does not mean one “hates America.” Any assertion as such is in bad faith and demonstrative of a conscious unwillingness to learn or waver from political positions that embrace the brands of nationalism and traditionalism that have historically fueled genocidal ideologies.

    • @ANEC

      The USA has its own share of problems and struggles, and today one struggle is its own ‘Americans’ from within its government – a type of deep state – dictating American policy which in many cases is ant-Christian and also contrary to the interests of Americans themselves. Evey day Americans are powerless and too distracted with other things to do anything about it. I would even go so far as saying American Christians themselves are now being oppressed and struggling against elements in their own government. This is a result of – what else – leftist ideology, which has now begun to enter into the realm of outright Communism. So claiming “oh look a Christian country isn’t helping Christians” cannot be an argument without understanding how the US government operates. If the USA was a dictatorship like Russia, it may have been a point to consider, yet no one is chanting “oh look, Christian Russia is helping Islamic Azeri-Turks and ISIS terrorists from Syria against the first Christian nation”.

      At the end of the day though, Armenia isn’t all that important for the USA. If leaders in Armenia were smart enough, patriotic enough, and generally not traitorous puppets of Russia, then Armenia might have been a lot more important to the USA than it is now, and in fact, might have even been a larger and powerful nation. Armenia’s failure cannot be ascribed to the USA, Armenia’s failure is 100 percent based on Russian policy.

      Unlike Russia, America’s record of helping Armenians in trouble historically has been very commendable. In today’s situation, with Russia having a stranglehold on Armenia, and using Armenia as a puppet nation and labeling it a “regional ally”, the US in theory should consider Armenia as an enemy nation. Yet that is far from the case. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to why that is.

  3. I always had this point of view about the Native Americans, even when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. Thank you for bringing this to the community!

  4. Thank you for a very educational article. Unfortunately history keeps repeating itself but hopefully the new generation, which you are a part of, will help to stop the cycle.

  5. The history taught in our school is disgracefully void
    if our indigenous brethren. We would all be better to learn
    more about their tragic history and incredible culture.
    Teach the whole history. Armenians must be empathetic to
    who have suffered. Thank you.

  6. This article has many comments; however none address why Armenians even celebrate Thanksgiving in the US to begin with? Only compare, contrast, past & previous histories. May I pose that question to the author? I didn’t read anywhere in the article this issue being mentioned. Why? As the saying goes, “Dzur nsdink. Shidag khosink.” Why are we even writing about this? Can anyone show an article written by Native Americans about the Armenian Genocide? Native Americans have gotten recognition for crimes committed against them as well as numerous federal, state compensations nationwide and reparations. So how is this a fair comparison, especially when Armenians come to the US and start following this country’s traditions and forget their own. What have the Armenians got from the Turks? If anything, continued barbaric acts in Armenia and Artsakh. For those who are ready to point the finger at the Russians, be realistic. If our own Prime Minister doesn’t seem to care about Armenia and Artsakh, why should other country leaders? Mr. Nikol Pashinyan had the capability to stop the war and save Artsakh from going to our enemy, but he didn’t. Russia gave us a slap in the face based on Nikol’s actions. Armenians should focus on solving their own issues and spreading awareness about their own atrocities instead of comparing grapes to watermelons. The “Mothers of Goris”, a wonderful documentary, which took effort, time didn’t get the attention this article did. Perhaps we as Armenians, should also think about it and ask ourselves why not? Are our priorities in the right place? I think not!

    • Hi Roubig! Sorry for not responding earlier. I just saw your comment on my latest post and tried to find the other comment you mentioned. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I’m going to try to respond to every question/statement you have for me here.

      1. “This article has many comments; however none address why Armenians even celebrate Thanksgiving in the US to begin with? Only compare, contrast, past & previous histories. May I pose that question to the author? I didn’t read anywhere in the article this issue being mentioned. Why?”

      To answer your question, this article was not supposed to be about why Armenians celebrate Thanksgiving, and yes, the very purpose of it was to compare and contrast past histories, as the title suggests. I can only imagine Armenian-Americans celebrate an American “holiday” because they live in America and I personally don’t see why I need to dedicate an entire article to that. Generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with adopting the traditions of the place you now reside in if you honor the traditions of your people, as well. An example that I can draw is that of Christmas. I celebrate Christmas both on December 25 — the date Western Christians celebrate — and January 6, Armenian Christmas.

      I instead decided to draw historical parallels of two atrocities. Native-Americans were viciously deported and barbarically massacred by white colonizers. How were these actions justified by white colonizers? Through racist ideologies, which directly fall in line with Pan-Turkism, a racist ideology used by the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide to give ground to the years of inhumanity toward our people. So yes, I decided that highlighting this issue would be more important than figuring out why we celebrate a holiday. As a writer, I find no reason to. The pen holds power, and I would rather advocate for justice in whatever way I can.

      2. “Native Americans have gotten recognition for crimes committed against them as well as numerous federal, state compensations nationwide and reparations. So how is this a fair comparison, especially when Armenians come to the US and start following this country’s traditions and forget their own.”

      What kind of reparations are you talking about? I can’t really speak on that — seeing that I am not a Native American — but a 2020 article by Tenzin Shakya and Anthony Rivas can showcase the issues with your idea of “recognition”: https://abcnews.go.com/US/native-americans-reparations-vary-sovereignty-heard/story?id=73178740

      In regards to the second half of this statement, this newspaper is proof that we come to the United States and show the world our beautiful culture and traditions. Aside from that, I think that is an incredibly misleading statement. We have a rich culture that we have carried over and introduced to the United States. It is unfair to make that claim, especially when there are many organizations, publications, and groups that work to make that far from the reality.

      3. “What have the Armenians got from the Turks? If anything, continued barbaric acts in Armenia and Artsakh. […] Armenians should focus on solving their own issues and spreading awareness about their own atrocities instead of comparing grapes to watermelons.”

      Being an advocate for justice requires you to stand up for any and all atrocities around the world. Today, on Thanksgiving, I chose to offer the platform to the Native Americans and give them my platform on a “holiday” that does nothing but hurt them.

      4. “The “Mothers of Goris”, a wonderful documentary, which took effort, time didn’t get the attention this article did. Perhaps we as Armenians, should also think about it and ask ourselves why not? Are our priorities in the right place? I think not!”

      I actually interviewed the director of the “Mothers of Goris” documentary and wrote an article about it! I know it took effort and time, all things that I mentioned in my article about it. Feel free to read it! The documentary was incredible and the work Miaseen is doing is unparalleled. I have received a few negative comments by you at this point — which is no problem — yet no acknowledgement by you of the article about the documentary.

      Anyway, thank you for reading this article! I hope I answered all the questions and concerns you had for me. I appreciate the constructive criticism.

  7. Melody Jan Sorry you took so much time to write an article reply. I’ve praised your writing skills and made comments on your articles, but you’re missing it. If Armenian educated students don’t write Armenian who is going to? I just have one reply to the many many replies you gave me. Its a part from a poem which should address my criticism which you take personally. No need to continue afterwards. ՈՒ տե’ս, որդիս, ո’ւր էլ լինես, Այս լուսնի տակ ո՜ւր էլ գնաս, Թե մո’րդ անգամ մտքիցդ հանես, Քո մա՜յր լեզուն չմոռանա’ս: If you can by least understand the purpose you’ll understand what being Armenian is. thank you and best to you in your writing career Meghethy is Armenian for Melody. Thank you.

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