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.