A group of Rock County residents wrestled with the story of the first Thanksgiving on Monday night.
The traditional story is that the Pilgrims were starving, and a local tribe saved them by bringing food for a feast.
That story has been woven into images and storytelling that ignores the larger history, Native American activists charge. Yes, there was a meeting of the Wampanoag tribe and Pilgrims in about 1621, but 16 years later, white settlers burned a village, killing hundreds of men, women and children of another tribe.
“People were burned alive, and they (the attackers) gave thanks afterwards for the sacrifice of white Puritan soldiers,” said Holly Denning, a UW-Whitewater instructor who teaches the history. “It’s distressing.”
The massacre was one of uncounted assaults on native peoples, from the smallpox that wiped out most of them when white people unintentionally brought it to the continent, to forced migrations, massacres, wars and rapes, to the modern efforts to wipe out native cultures in boarding schools.
About 40 people in a Zoom meeting discussed the problem of celebrating Thanksgiving in the face of the deep hurt that Native Americans feel.
The meeting was a Courageous Conversation, one of a series of discussions about race and ethnicity sponsored by the Diversity Action Team of Rock County and other groups. Many participants were members of the Diversity Action Team’s Allies of Native People group.
Members knew they were dealing with knowledge that many people would find upsetting after being taught about a kind, gentle first Thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving needs some reworking, seriously, but boy, it’s going to be a hard sell,” Janet LaBrie said.
Children learn the Thanksgiving myth in school, several speakers noted. They dress up like Pilgrims and in stereotypical “Indian” outfits. Mary Buelow said she remembered her own children making Thanksgiving crafts, such as headdresses made of brown paper bags.
“Those Pilgrim crafts just never go away, and I have this experience of this family bonding time, but I can totally see how someone who is native, they see the crafts every year, and it’s an in-your-face reminder. And I don’t know what to do about that,“ Buelow said.
Several speakers suggested engaging authorities in schools where Thanksgiving teaching has not changed. Some suggested adding Native American perspectives and prayers to Thanksgiving celebrations.
LaBrie took a tougher stance: “It’s not just one massacre here and one hanging of people there. Put it all together, it’s genocide, and Thanksgiving is being grateful for genocide, and that’s the way I see it.”
Jeanne Carfora said with video meetings replacing family gatherings this year, “It seems like 2020 is the year to bring it all out, in our own ways. It can provide us an opportunity to start the conversation.”
After viewing a video about this history, Barbara Fett said it made her ashamed.
“It feels like a kick in the teeth, actually. But I can understand it,” Fett said. “As a white person, Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday. I can express my love and gratitude to my family and sit down and have a meal. But when I think about the real historical meaning of Thanksgiving, it makes me really sick.”
Nancy Stabb said her sons prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas because it’s such a great time of family togetherness, but she wanted to incorporate the Native American views, as well.
“I would try do something before Thanksgiving, to prepare people ahead of time with some of this information,” Stabb said, noting that November is already Native American Heritage Month. “So that when Thanksgiving comes, the discussion will be more organic than confrontational.”