Thanksgiving holiday masks history of violence, systematic oppression of indigenous peoples

Julia Zaksek

For many UT students, Thanksgiving is a celebration marked by family, turkey and pilgrims. Most Americans learn a simplified, singular story of Thanksgiving. 

The pilgrims came to America escaping persecution from the English and struggled to survive until the kindly “Indians,” the Wampanoag people of New England, taught them how to grow crops and survive the harsh winters. The pilgrims celebrated their survival and newfound friendship with the Wampanoag with a feast. 

This story is reiterated in TV specials, children’s books and high school history classes. 

However, this is a cleaned-up fraction of a long, bloody and painful history. The arrival of the pilgrims, or English puritans, marked the beginning of the systematic elimination of indigenous populations throughout North America. The peace the pilgrims supposedly celebrated was short-lived. 

Colonists began to thrive in the following decades, pushing farther and farther inland, building towns and settlements and waging war against any tribes that protested colonists seizing their land. 

Over time, indigenous populations plummeted. The ever-advancing colonists brought disease, war and starvation. As the colonists began to dominate North America and establish their own systems of government and culture, indigenous peoples’ traditions were systematically erased and replaced with Western ideals, including this version of Thanksgiving. 

In this forum, Tane Ward, the director of Equilibrio Norte, an Austin-based decolonial organizing project, discusses the ongoing legacy of Thanksgiving and how colonial practices, both modern day and historic, harm indigenous populations. 

María F. Rocha, the executive director of Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, explains the consequences of the first Thanksgiving and argues that UT’s refusal to return ancestral remains to indigenous Texas groups is part of the painful legacy of colonization. 

As always, if you have any thoughts on this topic or any other, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected]