The true story of the first Thanksgiving and what it meant
In classrooms and dinner tables across the country this week, people will celebrate a story that is misunderstood and incomplete, but nonetheless, one that has been promoted for centuries. While there was a convening between the Wampanoag and the newly arriving Pilgrims that included sharing of food, the story as promoted today is a stretch, and the real and complete story is absent from the pages of history. A story that includes shame, greed, disrespect, and dishonor, all in the name of forging a democracy where all could be free, except for the indigenous occupants who occupied these lands since time immemorial.
The story of Thanksgiving is rooted with the Pilgrims landing on the shores of North America, but it became the holiday story as understood today two centuries later in a country divided by civil war. In 1863, in an attempt to unite the country and smooth strained relations between North and South, President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. It was at this time that imagery of Pilgrims and Native people celebrating together took root. Since 1863 presidents, political figures, and others have shaped the public narrative around Thanksgiving, but there are voices and stories not commonly heard by many Americans — those of Native people.
As an elder and one of the leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation, I believe Native peoples’ stories are incredibly important: I have witnessed first-hand the negative implications of what can happen when our stories are told incorrectly by others.
The early 1600s brought newcomers who had left their home in England to Wampanoag territory. After anchoring and going ashore near Nauset (now Cape Cod) in November 1620, a nine-year-old Pilgrim boy became separated from the group. The Wampanoag people cared for him for several weeks before returning him to the Pilgrims. The common interest in this child fostered a feeling of compassion for the Pilgrims in our tribal leadership, who agreed that the Wampanoag would feed and protect the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims, in turn, agreed to remain on the land in a peaceful and respectful way. This treaty was the first made between a tribal nation and the Pilgrims.
The following fall, Wampanoag residents observed Pilgrim men leave their village with weapons. They were concerned that the Pilgrims were making plans for war. Within a few days, 92 Wampanoag chiefs arrived to ask the Pilgrims what had brought them to a place of unrest. The Pilgrims said they were only practicing using their arms. While this meant no war was impending, the Wampanoag chiefs needed to rest before returning home. Several Wampanoag set out and brought back venison and fowl. The Pilgrim men offered to share their ale in trade for some meat, and the two groups ultimately spent the next several days sharing their provisions. This was the shared meal that occurred between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims — it was not formal, but it was eaten peacefully.
This is a story of peace and cooperation between different peoples making an effort to uphold the promise of protection and support they offered each other through treaty. This is a story that can unite and inspire us in these divided times. But what is often left out of the Thanksgiving narrative is that Native peoples subsequently faced losses of land, broken treaties, and threats to our sovereignty as independent tribal nations — all at the hands of the US federal government.
In fact, injustice at the hands of the federal government is happening today. On Nov. 14, the Mashpee Wampanoag led a march to the Capitol to call on Congress to prevent our reservation from being dissolved by the Trump administration. We have been fighting this battle since September 2018, when the Department of Interior decided to take land held in trust for Mashpee Wampanoag Nation out of trust — effectively dissolving our reservation.
This Thanksgiving, we are calling upon all Americans to share this story to help our voices be heard and to stop this injustice. Congress needs to enact legislation that will restore our lands and reaffirm the spirit of the cooperation, now so famously celebrated and embodied in Thanksgiving.
As citizens of our Tribal Nations and of America, we will fight this battle as we always have — with dignity, diplomacy, and the knowledge that the story of Native people in America is a story of strength and resilience in the face of challenges. It is a story built around our strong commitment to family, shared responsibility to care for the land, and our sense of obligation to do right by the next generation. It is a story that is woven into the fabric of our American story, with threads that extend beyond the First Peoples of America.
In these uncertain and divided times, it is a Thanksgiving story rooted in mutual respect, regard, and humanity that can unite all Americans.
Jessie Little Doe Baird is a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, vice chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, and a member of the Wampanoag Women’s Medicine Society.