Thanksgiving’s genocidal history continues amid family gatherings and celebrations
Indigenous activists pause following a prayer during the 38th National Day of Mourning at Coles Hill in Plymouth, Mass., on Nov. 22, 2007. | Lisa Poole / AP

Another Thanksgiving—called “Thankstaking” in many Indigenous circles—comes and goes, but its bloody background forever lingers on. There is no getting around the crimson history once it is embedded in the psyche of those of us who know better.

No amount of family gatherings and pass the turkey and pumpkin pie can erase the colonial elephant sitting so ubiquitously in the room.

Old habits are so hard to break. Even though millions, hopefully, are aware of the true narrative of this infamous so-called holiday, that does not slow down the family assemblies and feasts.

Origin of the “Thanksgiving Holiday”

At the risk of being repetitious, I must recount the correct origins of the Thanksgiving of popular culture. In 1637, there was a horrific massacre of over 700 Pequot Indigenous men, women, and children by the soldiers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This is now aptly called the “Mystic Massacre.”  Many of the hapless victims were burned alive. In recognition of this “victory,” Gov. Winthorp  proclaimed a “day of thanksgiving” for the returning soldiers. This was the first Thanksgiving.

National Day of Mourning

In recognition of this genocidal slaughter, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE), beginning in 1970 at Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Mass., proclaimed a National Day of Mourning (NDOM).

Ever since, they have observed Thanksgiving Day as a time to mourn and conduct ceremonies to commemorate this tragic event and protest the Frankenstein-like birth of colonialism in what became the United States (keep in mind that the Pilgrims could not have initially survived without Indigenous assistance).

This was the start of the colonialism that swept across this land bringing genocide to Native people and growing into an imperialism that sought to put the entire world into a state of thralldom for the sake of profit.

But the NDOM looks not just at the mythical Thanksgiving past, but also at the present and the future of Indigenous people. The NDOM focuses on the wide range of issues confronting contemporary Indigenous peoples. The NDOM also recognizes the horrendous genocide of millions of Indigenous people of the Americas, the capitalist theft of land and resources that fueled a barbarous imperialism over the centuries.

However, it also celebrates the indomitable resistance and strength of the Native nations.

Decolonization of the holiday

The decolonization of the holiday still has a long way to go, but steps in that direction have begun. Foremost have been efforts to use this day as an educational tool to correct the myth of Natives and Pilgrims celebrating over a sumptuous meal in 1621.

It can also be used to educate the mainstream public about the reality that Thanksgiving was a kickoff to the colonialism and genocide that swept this land.

Finally, it can be used to increase awareness and support of the Indigenous struggles on issues such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), the further investigation of the Indian boarding school atrocities, the continued outrageous incarceration of Indigenous political prisoner Leonard Peltier, the growing LandBack movement, and the looming Indian Child Welfare Act crisis, to name only a few among a host of others.

So as millions hit the roadways and airways, let’s contemplate that those same millions will reflect on the true origin of Thanksgiving from hundreds of years past and work for a better present and future.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.



Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.