Thanksgiving: The True History - A guest blog post by Courtney YellowWolf Graham-Wilson. Features photo of author with her fist raised under her chin as if she is contemplating something really important.

The real story of Thanksgiving:

A guest blog post by Courtney YellowWolf Graham-Wilson
Trigger warning: genocide, colonialism, violence 

Let’s talk about the true history of Thanksgiving.
Acknowledgement is the first step in healing. 

The Pequot tribe’s interactions with the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony were a fact-finding mission, to learn more about settlers who had been shooting guns and cannons towards their peoples. 

This occasion was not a major historical event or celebrated nationally until Abraham Lincoln used the Pilgrims and Indians eating together peacefully to create unity during the Civil War over 200 years later. 

Even more troubling is the ways that an original Thanksgiving celebration proclaimed by the governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony, was actually in commemoration of the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance [similar to what is shared in the video below]. They beheaded the Chief and had his head on display for over 20 years.  

The reality is that Thanksgiving for many Native Americans has always been connected to genocide, stolen land, broken treaties, settler colonialism, and violent Christian ideologies such as the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.

[Check out this documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery for new insights about thow this has impacted this country and the world.]

Non-Native communities must acknowledge that their traditions and “normal” ways of celebrating Thanksgiving are a distortion of history and erasure of trauma. 

President Abraham Lincoln officially established the holiday as a way to improve relations between northern and southern states as well as the U.S. and tribal nations during the Civil War.  

Screenshot of part of Lincoln's declaration about Thanksgiving - click the link for the original source
Excerpt of Lincoln's Declaration - Click to view primary source on the Library of Congress website

Just a year earlier, Lincoln was responsible for a mass execution of Dakota tribal members. Corrupt federal agents kept the Dakota-Sioux (Sioux used in historical context here) from receiving food and provisions. 

People escaping from the Indian massacre of 1862 in Minnesota, at dinner on a prairie
People escaping from the Indian massacre of 1862 in Minnesota, at dinner on a prairie. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Finally, at the brink of death from starvation, members of the tribe fought back, resulting in the Dakota War of 1862

In the end, President Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men to die from hanging, and he felt that “Thanksgiving” would be an opportunity to bridge the hard feelings amongst Natives and the federal government. 

It was propaganda.  

So, what to do with this information?

  1. Tell the real story of Thanksgiving. Make sure everyone you know knows the true history. [Read more here.]
  2. Take the money you would spend on a big meal and donate it to Native grassroots movements or Natives in need (Links to organizations in @courtyellowwolf‘s bio)
  3. Listen to/read lectures from Native peoples on the history of this day and their experiences and feelings.
  4. Attend the Day of Mourning events that you are welcome at in your area.
  5. Support Native businesses.
  6. Know whose land you are on ( and their treaty rights (
  7. Give thanks to the ancestral lands that you exist upon. Land, water, and other resources have genetic memories just like we do.
  8. Recognize that most ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving food comes from Native American agriculturalists: corn, squash, beans, cranberries.

You can also visit Courtney’s pinned post on Instagram regarding Native American Heritage Month for more ideas. This concludes the guest blog post by Courtney YellowWolf Graham-Wilson. Follow her on Instagram (@courtyellowwolf) for ongoing education about Native American Culture. 

More Insights about Native American History

Image of Krista Beazley speaking into a microphone. She is wearing a traditional dress. Overlaid text says "Preserving the White Mountain Apache Culture"

🎧 Click below to listen to this episode & click here to view the official show notes page.

A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing Krista Beazley, White Mountain Apache Regional Director. 

🌟 In a special Thanksgiving episode of my former podcast, Your Nonprofit Life, I was honored to welcome Krista Beazley, an incredible leader and member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. We explored the rich and often untold history of Thanksgiving through Krista’s unique perspective.

Krista’s journey from a wolf biologist to the Executive Director of the Fort Apache Heritage Foundation was nothing short of inspiring. In this episode, we dived deep into the heart of Native American culture and history. Listeners discovered the traditional foods of a White Mountain Apache Thanksgiving dinner and learned about the significant work Krista was doing to preserve her culture against the backdrop of history.

This episode was more than just a story; it was a journey into understanding and appreciation. If you missed it, it’s definitely a  conversation worth your time.