On This Day

Today, the day after Thanksgiving, is officially Native American Heritage Day. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The bill was introduced by Congressman Joe Baca and supported by 184 federally recognized tribes. It was seen as one small way to pay tribute to Native Americans for their many contributions to the United States.

painting
The sanitized version of the first Thanksgiving that many Americans were taught in school. (Painting by JLG Ferris, 1932, Library of Congress.]

Celebrating Thanksgiving as a holiday dates back to the early history of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Post-harvest holidays were celebrated on Thursdays which was also seen as “Lecture Day” because it was when church meetings occurred with topical lectures (sermons) were given.

The Thursday meeting best remembered happened in the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth governor William Bradford invited local members of the Wampanoag tribe to join the Pilgrims in a festival held in gratitude for the bounty of the season.

The actual day for Thanksgiving has changed a few times. In 1777, the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving following the Patriot victory at Saratoga. In 1789, President Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, as a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution. In 1863, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to officially fall on the last Thursday of November.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition by declaring November 23, the next to last Thursday that year, as Thanksgiving Day. That did not go over well. He backtracked in 1941 and signed a bill into law officially making the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.

Though most tribes supported the holiday’s designation, not all Native Americans are in favor of today being Native American Heritage Day. (see this article) Some tribes celebrate their heritage day on a different date. To some, Thanksgiving Day is the “National Day of Mourning. The fact that today is more widely known as Black Friday also seems to be an unfortunate day to share. Both Thanksgiving and especially Black Friday can be days “of excess and gluttony and greed and aggressive capitalism” coming after a day that Native Americans see as is celebrated without any indication that millions of indigenous people died as a result of aggressive settler colonialism.

Early contacts between the Wampanoag Indians and colonists date from the 16th century when European merchant vessels and fishing boats traveled along the coast of New England. Captain Thomas Hunt captured several Wampanoag in 1614 and sold them in Spain as slaves. A Patuxet named Tisquantum (or Squanto) was bought by Spanish monks who attempted to convert him before setting him free. He accompanied an expedition to Newfoundland as an interpreter, then made his way back to his homeland in 1619 — only to discover that the entire Patuxet tribe had died in an epidemic.

In 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, and Tisquantum and other Wampanoag taught them how to cultivate the varieties of corn, squash, and beans (the Three Sisters) that flourished in New England, as well as how to catch and process fish and collect seafood. They enabled the Pilgrims to survive their first winters, and Squanto lived with them and acted as a middleman between them and other neighboring tribes.Today is Native American Heritage Day