Story at a glance

  • Across the country, Indigenous Americans are fighting for their women, health and land.
  • This Thanksgiving, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is hoping to educate the public on the history of the holiday.
  • The tribe is one of several currently under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Depending on where you grew up and went to school, you probably learned a different version of the first Thanksgiving.

Generally, it goes something like this: The Pilgrims were facing a rough winter in Massachusetts when a tribe of Native Americans came to their aid, showing them how to plant native crops and forging a future of peace and cooperation between the two groups. In some stories, the Pilgrims gave them something in return (the details vary). 

"I think the only way forward is to understand the history the way that it happened," Steven Peters, a spokesman for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, told USA Today. "At that point, it really changes your perspective." 

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In recent years, Americans' understanding of history has only begun to acknowledge the oppression, genocide and trauma Native Americans suffered at the hands of European settlers. In several states and parts of the country, Columbus Day has been renamed Indigenous Peoples' Day and dozens of Christopher Columbus statues were removed along with those of slaveholders and racists this summer. 

But most Americans still don't know the history of the Mashpee Wampanoag, one of three surviving tribes of the original 69 in the Wampanoag Nation, and the descendants of the Native Americans present at the first Thanksgiving.

So here it is (the Sparknotes version), according to the tribe: When the Pilgrims settled on Wampanoag land in Plymouth in 1620, carrying diseases that the Indigenous people had no immunity to, the tribe was devastated by a pandemic that left them helpless as settlers pushed them off their land and killed and enslaved more than 40 percent of their population.  

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"When the colonists came over in the 17th century, they had to get rid of us in one form or fashion or another whether it as converting us, moving us, annihilating us, or shipping us out of the country into slavery, and I just wish people knew that because this history is not yet well known, but that's what it took for America to be what it is today and for people to sit down to have their Thanksgiving dinner," Linda Coombs, 71, an Aquinnah Wampanoag museum educator, told Time.  

Accepting this history also requires letting go of an idealized version of colonial history, especially for those whose ancestors came over at this time. 

"Many white Americans hold it very dear, the idea that the main impetus for colonization was the search for religious freedom," historian David Silverman told USA Today. "If you ask the general public, even educated people, that's the most common explanation. It's not right." 

The more accurate version of history, at least the one supported by scholars like Silverman, is that the Pilgrims first sought religious freedom in Holland. But they couldn't find jobs and struggled to assimilate, and so they headed for "the New World" - promising their backers a profit. The only first-person accounts of the first Thanksgiving from settlers are a couple of paragraphs written by Plymouth Colony's Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford - suggesting to historians that it just wasn't as big a deal as future generations have made the holiday. 

And while history is, just that, history, for some Americans, these misunderstandings have been a burden on Native American communities who are still fighting for their land and access to resources. Under lockdown due to the global coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Indigenous populations, the Wampanoag Nation is also fighting a push by the Trump administration to revoke the reservation status of the tribe's 321 acres of tribal land.

"In 2020, the year that marks four centuries since the voyage of the Mayflower, the anniversary is being commemorated internationally for establishing the first colony that would be the foothold of New England. But a point too often lost or undersold is that colonization does not occur without people being colonized, subjugated, oppressed, even killed to accommodate the colonizer. Colonization happened to, not for, the Wampanoag," said Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, in an online exhibit by Harvard University's Peabody Museum. "But we have endured."

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Published on Nov 25, 2020