Thanksgiving or Unthanksgiving? The holiday's dark history - History Bombs
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Thanksgiving or Unthanksgiving? The holiday’s dark history

Thanksgiving is an important day to gather with family and friends and reflect on the things we are thankful for in the past year. It is also celebrated by Native Americans as the National Day of Mourning for Native Americans and their Allies.

As we explored in our British Empire series, many suffered at the hands of European colonialism; while giving thanks and spending time with family is important, we must also recognise the lived histories behind the holiday.

Organised in 1970 by the United American Indians of New England, the National Day of Mourning is designated as a day to remember the forceful theft of Native land in the US. The day is used both as a day of remembrance of Native people’s ancestors and a day of protest against the ongoing racism and oppression that Native American people face today.

What does Thanksgiving represent?

Thanksgiving was celebrated by Americans originally as a day to celebrate good harvest, as well as intercultural peace. Nowadays, not many US citizens are worried about their yearly harvest yield, so instead gather with family and friends to enjoy a roast turkey and give thanks for the blessings of the past year.

But what does it represent to the communities that have been historically mistreated by settlers? For many, the holiday rather represents a false foundational tale used to portray a peaceful relationship between settlers and Native Americans.

For many Native Americans, therefore, Thanksgiving represents a time where settlers stole their land and initiated decades of violence. 

What happened at the “first Thanksgiving”?

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris: ‘The First Thanksgiving, 1621’, c.1915

So what actually happened at the feast that is celebrated on Thanksgiving, and how much of it is fiction enforced by holiday marketing?

The story goes that Native Americans helped the colonists to establish their settlements in the harsher weather conditions, and they celebrated a successful harvest together with a feast. 

In reality, the story is darker. When colonists first arrived in America, they brought with them deadly diseases that wiped out many Native people. The early relationships between colonists and Native American people were complex and unstable; for example, on arrival, colonists often kidnapped and enslaved the Native population, rather than breaking bread with them. The Thanksgiving feast more strongly resembles a moment of peace among a tumultuous period in history for both colonists and indigenous people.


1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz

Some Native Americans in San Francisco celebrate Unthanksgiving Day, a celebration held on Alcatraz Island. This celebration commemorates the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island by indigenous people to advocate for self-determination and for the island to be returned to the Native population, which was ended by the US government with force. 

The celebration happens at sunrise on Thanksgiving morning, with thousands of indigenous people gathering to celebrate different aspects of their culture and remember their ancestors, as well as advocate for their rights. 


It is important to gather with friends and family and practice giving thanks at this time of year, and these are also values of Native American culture. It is also important to remember the darker origins of Thanksgiving and why some do not celebrate, breaking the cycle of the colonial story that is enforced in literature and school curriculums.

It’s also important to recognise and reflect on the struggles still faced by Native Americans in society today and how colonialism has harmed communities around the world.

Pocahontas and other indigenous people from around the globe feature in our British Empire Series.

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