Native Americans are only one percent of the population, but their images are on our boxes of butter and cornstarch. Their names are used to sell motorcycles and cars. And one of their brief encounters with English colonists is the basis of one of our biggest holidays.
The story of Thanksgiving definitely evolved over time. The First Thanksgiving of 1621 happened but with little notice or attention. Curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian like to call it “a brunch in the forest.” Yes, it took place between Native Americans and Pilgrims. But the event was not exempt from history’s subjectivity.
“What historians have had trouble explaining to civilians is that history is always a narrative. It always has a level of fiction in it,” says the Smithsonian's Paul Chaat Smith. “That’s why the term ‘revisionist’ never really works,” he adds. “Because all history changes over time.” Smith is a co-curator of the National Museum of the American Indian's highly acclaimed exhibition “Americans,” which opened earlier this year, and a featured guest on the recently released Smithsonian Sidedoor podcast, "That Brunch in the Forest."
Many Americans are familiar with the early story of English colonists, or Pilgrims, coming to North America aboard the Mayflower. Many died from starvation and disease, and the rest struggled to survive a cold winter. The school play version of Thanksgiving tells the story of a landmark moment of coexistence, multiculturalism and even neighborliness when Native Americans taught Pilgrims to farm, and shared a meal with them after a successful harvest in 1621.
But it wasn’t a landmark moment—Smith describes it as a nonevent that was recorded in the writings of early English settlers, but likened it to more of a historic footnote.
“They didn't repeat it the next year,” Smith says. “It wasn't special and some people knew that it happened, but it was forgotten for hundreds of years until the 1800s.”
And that could be because Thanksgiving was never a very original idea to begin with. Long before 1621, Native Americans held celebrations and dances around a harvest, and Europeans also held church-style services to give thanks.
The “Americans” exhibition creates a deep sense of self-awareness for its visitors, especially ones who may not know someone Native American, but likely have a romanticized picture of who they are in mind. That’s probably because, as the exhibition’s hashtag #NDNsEVERYWHERE suggests, Indians are everywhere.
“Americans see Indians everyday. Indians are the wallpaper of American life. From your earliest memories, Indians surround you in the pantry. They are on place names, highways, cars and weapons systems,” says Smith.
Smith called the country’s relationship with Native Americans a “paradox” among other things.
“Let's talk about how freaking weird it is that this is one percent of the country,” he says. “Imagery of Indians is used from the beginning of the United States up to the present in a zillion different ways. And it's normalized, so we don't think about it. “
Native Americans are present in grade school history books and popular movies with varying degrees of accuracy. The Battle of Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears, Pocahontas and Thanksgiving are all stories that many Americans have at least heard of. They are also stories that the “Americans” exhibition examines in order to extract fiction from fact.
For Smith, Thanksgiving was an “irresistible” one to study, because of the key role the Wampanoag play in the Thanksgiving narrative, and the holiday’s status in American life.
“It’s a non-negotiable holiday. So let's say you're a vegan anarchist who hates Thanksgiving who sees it as a celebration of genocide. You still have to account for the fact that pretty much everybody you know is off. You have to know most things are closed. You have to know people are visiting their families, and there was probably pressure on you to visit your family,” he says.
How Native Americans Got a Permanent Seat at the Table
After the American Revolution, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and 19th century women’s magazines would all make calls for a national day of prayer and giving thanks. The idea of such a national holiday began to pick up steam after the Civil War, just as popular culture would create a public that was fascinated by early Pilgrims and Native Americans.
In 1855, the lost manuscript of William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth colony was recovered, and in 1858, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published The Courtship of Miles Standish, which would become a best-selling narrative poem about the early days of Plymouth colony.
“And over time, we get where we are now—where Thanksgiving is always about Indians,” Smith says—not to mention that Thanksgiving is now America’s second most favorite holiday, only to be rivaled by Christmas.
“So we decided to look at how and why that happens. Why is it important for the United States to feel like this is where our country begins? It's a very generous view to say the first thing we're going to commemorate is when these proto-Americans welcomed people already there, the Native Americans, to have a meal.”
Why Thanksgiving Matters to America
Smith describes the tale of the brunch in the forest as something of an American origin story, one that he says depicts the earliest Americans saying “we're friendly, we want to be friends.”
“The great Thanksgiving moment is when you bring in new neighbors. For certain demographics the prize is a Nigerian exchange student coming to your country, and sitting at your table,” he says. “All these things are quintessentially American. They show a certain generosity of the American spirit as you have a meal that is explicitly referencing a forgotten meal that happened [in 1621].”
But it may also be a way to cope with, or ignore, deeply troubling parts of U.S. history. A history of the U.S. government removing Native Americans from their lands, authorizing more than 1,500 wars, attacks, and raids on them, and tragically reducing their population.
“It’s this very unsatisfying way to deal with this hard truth, which is that the United States came at a great expense to Native Americans,” Smith says. “How do you come to terms with that? I think that’s what Thanksgiving does. It’s a way to engage with that [history], even though most people don’t think they’re engaging at all.”
When it comes to American history, Smith says Americans face the challenge of reconciling the Declaration of Independence's oft-quoted principles of freedom and liberty with the country's history of inequality.
“The ambition of the American project is so extraordinary, almost utopian, and yet in the moment people know it's nothing like that," he says. "Of course you can't say 'all men are created equal' because of course slavery exists. Of course you're actively dispossessing Native Americans even as you sort of romanticize Native Americans."
And though history gives Americans troubling truths to contend with just as much as it provides fodder for holiday myths, Smith believes one of the country’s biggest assets is its willingness to revisit history. He cited the Indian Removal Act, which passed in the 19th century, and dispossessed millions of Native Americans, as an example.
"In the 1830s, there were politicians who voted against [removal], who said 'we're going to regret this one day. This will be a moment of shame.' That's how it's regarded now," he says. “One of the things that Americans should be proud of, that I'm proud of, is that we are willing to look at really negative chapters of our history in a way that, I think, all countries do not.”
The exhibition "Americans," curated by Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) and Cécile R. Ganteaume, will remaine on view through 2022 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.