Think about the story of Thanksgiving you grew up with - Pilgrims in black clothes and funny hats and white aprons and shoes with big buckles sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner with "the Indians," celebrating peace and harmony and the harvest. Maybe you made a construction paper turkey by tracing your hand. Maybe your teacher made Pilgrim hats and bonnets and "Indian headdresses." The focus was on the food and American exceptionalism.
The real story is much, much different. "The First Thanksgiving," in 1621 was preceded and followed by violence. Indigenous voices and the role of the Wampanoag people in literally saving the lives of the English separatists (they didn't call themselves "Pilgrims") have been purposefully erased. The legacy of Indigenous foods - cultivated and created by Indigenous people - has also been largely erased from our cultural lexicon.
So what can we do about it? This year, you can decolonize your Thanksgiving by learning the real history behind it and familiarizing yourself with the various Indigenous nations in your own backyard and who played an important role in American history.
Today's blog post is essentially going to be a giant collection of articles to read and films to watch. I hope you take the time this weekend to read or watch a few with your family or friends and discuss (especially with your kids) the real story behind the myth.
Mythbusting the First Thanksgiving
What Really Happened at the 1st Thanksgiving from Voice of America
What you learned about the ‘first Thanksgiving’ isn’t true. Here’s the real story - from USA Today via the Cape Cod Times
The Real History Of The First Thanksgiving That You Didn’t Learn In School from All That Interesting
Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong from the New York Times
The Real History Of Thanksgiving Isn't The One You Learned In School—Here's How To Celebrate Smarter from Delish
The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue from Smithsonian Magazine
The true story behind Thanksgiving is a bloody one, and some people say it's time to cancel the holiday from Insider
The Thanksgiving Myth Gets a Deeper Look This Year from the New York Times
Meet the Wampanoag
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, has inhabited present day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years. After an arduous process lasting more than three decades, the Mashpee Wampanoag were re-acknowledged as a federally recognized tribe in 2007. In 2015, the federal government declared 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres of land in Taunton as the Tribe’s initial reservation, on which the Tribe can exercise its full tribal sovereignty rights. The Mashpee tribe currently has approximately 2,600 enrolled citizens. Learn more >>>
Wampanoag History from the Wampanoag Nation
400 Years After the ‘First Thanksgiving,’ the Tribe That Fed the Pilgrims Continues to Fight for Its Land Amid Another Epidemic from Time Magazine
In 1621, the Wampanoag Tribe Had Its Own Agenda from The Atlantic
“OUR” STORY: 400 Years of Wampanoag History an online exhibit with short documentary films from Plymouth 400.
U.S. Appeals Ruling In Mashpee Wampanoag Land Case from WBUR and the Cape Cod Times. Although the Mashpee Wampanoag won their case against the Department of the Interior, which had revoked their federal recognition, the US government is currently appealing that ruling. Hopefully that appeal process will cease in 2021.
National Day of Mourning
The National Day of Mourning was organized in 1970 in response to a specific event of the suppression of history. This is the 50th anniversary of that event. Here's some background on what led to the creation of the National Day of Mourning from the United American Indians of New England:
"In 1970, United American Indians of New England declared US Thanksgiving Day a National Day of Mourning. This came about as a result of the suppression of the truth. Wamsutta, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man, had been asked to speak at a fancy Commonwealth of Massachusetts banquet celebrating the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. He agreed. The organizers of the dinner, using as a pretext the need to prepare a press release, asked for a copy of the speech he planned to deliver. He agreed. Within days Wamsutta was told by a representative of the Department of Commerce and Development that he would not be allowed to give the speech. The reason given was due to the fact that, "...the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place." What they were really saying was that in this society, the truth is out of place.
"What was it about the speech that got those officials so upset? Wamsutta used as a basis for his remarks one of their own history books - a Pilgrim's account of their first year on Indian land. The book tells of the opening of my ancestor's graves, taking our wheat and bean supplies, and of the selling of my ancestors as slaves for 220 shillings each. Wamsutta was going to tell the truth, but the truth was out of place.
"Here is the truth:
"The reason they talk about the pilgrims and not an earlier English-speaking colony, Jamestown, is that in Jamestown the circumstances were way too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth. For example, the white settlers in Jamestown turned to cannibalism to survive. Not a very nice story to tell the kids in school. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus "discovered" anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land. The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod -- before they even made it to Plymouth -- was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry. They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here. And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine down the hill called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.
"The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from Massachusetts who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.
"About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in "New England" were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression.
"But back in 1970, the organizers of the fancy state dinner told Wamsutta he could not speak that truth. They would let him speak only if he agreed to deliver a speech that they would provide. Wamsutta refused to have words put into his mouth. Instead of speaking at the dinner, he and many hundreds of other Native people and our supporters from throughout the Americas gathered in Plymouth and observed the first National Day of Mourning. United American Indians of New England have returned to Plymouth every year since to demonstrate against the Pilgrim mythology.
"On that first Day of Mourning back in 1970, Plymouth Rock was buried not once, but twice. The Mayflower was boarded and the Union Jack was torn from the mast and replaced with the flag that had flown over liberated Alcatraz Island. The roots of National Day of Mourning have always been firmly embedded in the soil of militant protest."
You can learn more about the United American Indians of New England and their mission and watch a livestream of their National Day of Mourning program live from Plymouth here: http://www.uaine.org/
Not all Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Find out why. from the Cape Cod Times.
For Native Peoples, Thanksgiving Isn't A Celebration. It's A National Day Of Mourning from WBUR
400 Years After First Thanksgiving, Native Americans Honor 'Day of Mourning' Instead from Newsweek
Indigenous Foods & Thanksgiving Dinner
You may recall my catalog of Indigenous foods a few weeks ago. The global impact of Indigenous agriculturalists is a staggering and often overlooked or ignored part of our history. Here are some books, films, and articles you can read to learn more about the impact of Indigenous food on our diet and the struggles of Indigenous chefs and historians to reclaim their food sovereignty.
Indigenous Chefs On Traditional Cooking And Their Complicated Relationship With Thanksgiving from Delish
Native Americans want to decolonize Thanksgiving with native foods and a proper history lesson KIRO radio
Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef: ‘This Is The Year To Rethink Thanksgiving’ from the Huffington Post
This Thanksgiving, Make These Native Recipes From Indigenous Chefs from the Huffington Post
3 Indigenous Chefs Talk About What Thanksgiving Means to Them from Bon Appetit
This Thanksgiving, try these recipes for local Native American foods from Kansas City Magazine
How to Decolonize Your Thanksgiving Dinner by Vice
“We are still alive”: How Native communities grapple with Thanksgiving’s colonial legacy from The Counter
Films to Watch this Thanksgiving
I cannot recommend the film Gather enough. You can rent it on Vimeo, Amazon Prime, or check their website for free screenings. It's stunningly filmed, it portrays a huge variety of Indigenous voices and stories, and it tells an amazing story of the effort of Indigenous people to reclaim their food sovereignty.
Sean Sherman, also known as the Sioux Chef, has done a lot to bring national attention to Indigenous foodways. He's written a book and you can learn more about him on his website.
Andi Murphy is the host of the Toasted Sister Podcast: Radio about Native American Food.
Well folks if I want to get this done before midnight on Thanksgiving I have to stop, but stay tuned for another post on Indigenous Food Historians You Should Know, which I hope to get up soon. Featuring all kinds of amazing people, stories, books, and even more documentary films.
I hope this collection of resources has helped you re-learn your American history and decolonize your Thanksgiving this and every year.
As always, The Food Historian blog is supported by patrons on Patreon! Join us for awesome members-only content like free digitized cookbooks from my personal collection, e-newsletter, and even snail mail from time to time!
And what a year it has been! But Sarah, you say, a year? Didn't "The Food That Built America" only come out in August? Why yes, dear reader, it did. But the magic of television isn't created overnight. And it was exactly on January 16, 2019 that the dear folks hired by the History Channel to do the production of that wonderful series sent me an email through this very website.
Although I have been on television before, this was my first interview of this length and professionalism. It took place on a frigid January day in a Brooklyn warehouse equipped with a very noisy heater. So it was off during filming. My 2 pm interview was constantly interrupted by the air brakes and backing-up beeps of the trucks that still visited the industrial area where we were filming. At one point you could see my breath on the air. But dear reader, it was so FUN. There were two cameras, one on a track to my side, which was a bit intimidating. The other was affixed with a mirror so I could see interviewer Thaddeus in the reflection (he was sitting to the side of the camera) and look right into the camera while appearing to look him in the face. Which made things much easier and less intimidating, to be honest. There were also about 10 people in the room with us, but of course they were so quiet it was easy to forget they were there. Thaddeus asked me lots of interesting questions, and I did my best to give good answers and, my specialty, lots of fantastic context to all the topics they were discussing. On several occasions, I even managed to repeat myself after each truck interruption without losing too much of the original quote. In all, I'm pretty proud of how I acquitted myself.
My only regret is the World War I context - Thaddeus didn't make it clear in his questioning that they were going to be talking primarily about the businesses during WWI, so my responses were all about the regulations on individual Americans. Had I realized, I could have pontificated at length about the impacts on food businesses and retail during the war. Oh well. No one's perfect.
At any rate, a friend who teaches Family and Consumer Science (or FACS, as it is often called) told me the other day that FACS teachers around the country were using "The Food That Built America" in their lesson plans. And every couple of months another person I went to high school with or I know through work takes the time to mention that they saw me on TV, which is always fun. Although, sadly, I did not receive payment for my interview (as I'm sure few of the other interviewees did), I did get a free train ride and a car to pick me up, so that was nice.
If you haven't seen "The Food That Built America" yet and you have cable - check out the History Channel from time to time - they seem to be replaying it quite frequently. Looks like they removed the online screening from The History Channel website, sadly.
BUT! If, like me, you do NOT have cable, you can purchase or rent the episodes through Amazon Prime. As an Amazon affiliate, if you purchase anything from this link, I will get a small commission.
Have you seen "The Food That Built America?" What was your favorite part?
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"Henry Browne, Farmer" - film produced in 1942 by the United States Department of Agriculture, digitized by the Prelinger Archive of archive.org.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1943, "Henry Browne, Farmer" was a propaganda film produced by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1942. It is also one of the few major propaganda pieces (there were many thousand smaller efforts) directed specifically at African Americans.
In it are many hallmarks of post-Reconstruction life for African Americans in a white supremacist country. References to using only mules instead of a tractor. Eating cornbread and fatback last year, but having a cow and chickens, meaning milk and eggs for breakfast this year. Specific programs are not mentioned, but it is clear that by cooperating with the federal government to grow peanuts, that the Browne family is also participating in other endeavors, like raising chickens and keeping a victory garden. Children, in particular, were encouraged in rural areas to raise chickens (like "sister" in the film), dairy cows ("brother's job), and help with Victory gardening and around the farm. Similar programs around pig clubs and tomato canning clubs were in use during World War I as well.
The film, which sadly does not record any of their voices (just the voiceover), ends with the family going to visit their oldest son, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. This is both a call to service for all Americans and "proof" that the family is just as patriotic as any white American.
This film was groundbreaking in that it put African American farmers on equal footing with other Americans joining the war effort. It emphasized Henry Browne's good agricultural techniques, like saving burlap bags instead of throwing them away, and greasing and covering farm equipment, which meant that it was likely to "last the duration" in a time when steel was in short supply and new farm equipment was likely to be expensive or impossible to get. It also did not have too many hallmarks of racism, which is surprising for the time. Unlike during the First World War, the United States propaganda machine during WWII was broadening the definition of who "counted" as an American, to give a little more credence to the idea that Americans were fighting to preserve democracy and freedom abroad. Unfortunately, the message was ultimately still hypocritical as many Black people in the south were being terrorized by Jim Crow laws, police, incarceration, and the Ku Klux Klan. However, a Civil Rights movement, which had been borne out of the returning Black soldiers of World War I and which broadened during World War II, was underway, as African Americans sought to free themselves from terror, discrimination, and disenfranchisement.
World War II would mark the end of an era for many Black farmers in the rural south. Industrial work in northern and coastal cities, long a draw for those escaping sharecropping and other slave-like conditions in the South, became a bigger draw during the total war mobilization of the nation's industries. Thanks to protests from African American unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the NAACP, Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced to create the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941, which banned discriminatory hiring in federal agencies and for companies employed in defense work, which for the first time allowed many African Americans to receive fair wages and work conditions for the first time. In addition to this draw off of the farms, there is evidence that the USDA engaged in discriminatory practices which helped drive African American farmers off of their land and caused nearly 90% of black farmers to lose their land in the years following World War II. Pete Daniel's book Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights explores this topic in more detail, and in fact, until very recently, the USDA continued their discriminatory practices.
In all, "Henry Browne, Farmer" is one of the better propaganda films to come out of the Second World War. With quiet assurance and emphasis on the important work of ordinary Americans to do their part, it lacks the overly patronizing tone and bombast of other "documentaries" from the period. It's one of my favorites, and I hope you enjoy it as well.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.