We all think we know the true Thanksgiving story. But do we really? "Probably not," says Perry Ground, Turtle Clan (Onondaga Nation) member, cultural educator, and professional Native American storyteller. In fact, Perry suggests that what most Americans have learned about the Thanksgiving holiday is a combination of fabrication, myth, and history, that over the centuries, has become accepted as the truth.
Perry is Project Coordinator for the Native American Resource Center in the Rochester City School District. Every autumn he found that he was hearing a lot of questions from students, parents, and teachers in the district about the Native American role in the Thanksgiving holiday. This was both amusing and troubling to him. “People think all Native Americans are the same,” he says. “But it was the Wampanoags that would have been at the first New England feast. My tribe (which belongs to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in New York State) wasn’t even present in that part of the country.”
Eventually these questions piqued Perry’s interest enough to research how, and where, the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration came from. He discovered that the initial idea of a “First Thanksgiving” began with a single paragraph, about a one-time event, in a letter written by Edward Winslow, who partook in the 1621 feast. Though there definitely was a meal, shared by two diverse groups of people, the occasion was probably quite different than the one Americans continue to celebrate today. Based on his discoveries, Perry came up with a talk, “Rethinking Thanksgiving,” that he offers to schools and community groups. Where does he go to share his knowledge? “Wherever I’m asked to go!” he says, laughing. For Perry, it’s one more way to educate others about authentic Native American history and culture. He believes there’s still a general perception that Native Americans are “frozen” in the past like storybook characters, when, in reality, Native peoples all over the country have continued to evolve and change over time just like the non-Natives around them.
Kim Carey-Bolzner is a fourth grade Special Education teacher at the John James Audubon School #33 in Rochester. The curriculum for her grade focuses on New York State history, which includes the Haudenosaunee, so she was eager to attend Perry’s talk last November. “I knew that some of what I was taught in elementary school myself was a fallacy,” she explains. “Just because it’s written down in history books doesn’t mean it’s absolutely true. The oral and storytelling traditions that are so tied into the Haudenosaunee culture are ours as well. Thanksgiving is a perfect example of this.” Kim adds that some of the information she and other teachers impart to their students today is completely different from what she was taught as a student in the 1970s. For example, until Perry’s talk, she had never heard of Edward Winslow’s letter and was eager to share this historical tidbit with her fourth graders. When one child asked, “Why did they lie to us?” Kim gave the question careful consideration. “It was simply misinformation,” she says. “There was a meeting, but it was never actually called Thanksgiving. But the idea of two different cultures coming together and sitting down and breaking bread with each other is huge!” Perry agrees that American history is frequently written more subjectively than objectively. “The winners write the history books and this holiday, created out of thin air, is a good example. This happens a lot to Native Americans, even though we are indigenous Americans,” he asserts.
For his presentation, Perry opens by giving the audience a Thanksgiving quiz, which highlights just how little most Americans actually know about the history surrounding the popular holiday. “I can’t believe I didn’t know that” and “I’m learning that everything I thought I knew for a fact is fiction,” are the two most common reactions he gets from adults and students as they attempt to answer questions about the Pilgrims, Native Americans, the “First Thanksgiving” feast, and “The American Holiday of Thanksgiving.” Kim admits that she only got 17 out of 34 answers correct. “I was shocked,” she says. “I’m someone who loves, and teaches, history. I really learned a lot from taking it.” Getting a less-than-perfect score actually makes sense, Perry emphasizes, because we all tend to accept the things we learn from our teachers, parents, and other adults as true, so the erroneous information and stories associated with Thanksgiving are passed on from generation to generation.
Another faulty description of a Thanksgiving holiday came from the Chronicles of Pilgrim Fathers written in 1841 by Reverend Alexander Young, Perry says. Based on the erroneous assumptions made in that book, more books and magazine articles were subsequently written about the “First Thanksgiving Feast.” Since mass media back in those days was the print industry, Perry notes, a historically inaccurate story, reprinted over and over, would eventually become accepted as the truth. The inaccurate story was even visually reinforced by famous artists like N.C. Wyeth with his painting, “The Thanksgiving Feast.” But it was Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a book called Northwood and a magazine called “Goodey’s Lady’s Book," who ultimately defined Thanksgiving customs in people’s minds. With a persistent letter-writing campaign, she managed to persuade President Lincoln in 1863 to formalize the Thanksgiving holiday by proclaiming a National Day of Thanksgiving the last Thursday in November. Many of the traditions Americans still practice today, such as the special foods that are eaten and the festive centerpiece on the table, were inspired by Ms. Hale. This is one of Kim’s favorite parts of the talk. “Sarah Hale was the Martha Stewart of her day,” she says. “We have someone in every time period who wants to get creative with nature and make things nice for others.” Unfortunately, turkey probably wasn’t even on the original menu. When the English and Wampanoag met for dinner, Perry says, they most likely ate venison and either duck or goose. Potatoes weren’t served either, though there may have been Jerusalem artichokes! Every president after Lincoln issued a similar Thanksgiving proclamation until 1941 when Congress passed a law declaring Thanksgiving a legal holiday.
Perry has come to believe that what people may be really asking him as that November Thursday approaches is twofold; how Native American feel about the Thanksgiving holiday and if Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving the same as everyone else. The answer is both “yes” and “no” he responds. For him, as a Native American, there are really two separate concepts: “Thanksgiving” (upper case) and “thanksgiving” (lower case). "The Thanksgiving story is an American tradition and the holiday is a big part of our national identity," he notes adding, “Our country is huge [geographically] and very diverse but Thanksgiving is the one holiday that, no matter what state you live in, you will likely be celebrating the very same way as other Americans all over the United States.” He believes that the national holiday, with its emphasis on family, food, and fun, is a truly important day in the United States and that people’s holiday traditions, whether based in fact or fiction, are important and meaningful to them so they should celebrate in whatever way suits them best. This includes Perry and his family as well. “Come that Thursday in November, we eat turkey and potatoes and watch parades and football just like everyone else,” Perry says. “It doesn’t matter what your religion or ethnicity is. Thanksgiving is for everyone who wants to celebrate it.”
As a Native American, Perry embraces and practices the philosophy that giving thanks shouldn’t only be done on a single day each year. He explains that historically Native Americans didn’t have a calendar so they set aside certain times of year to give thanks (like during the Green Corn or Harvest times) rather than choosing a specific date.
There’s also a “Thanksgiving Address” that is spoken aloud whenever Native Americans get together for social, religious, or political reasons. “It gives thanks for everything in the world around us. It’s a way to bind ourselves together so our minds are one with each other and the world around us,” he elaborates. Can all Americans have the best of both worlds and celebrate Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November while giving thanks all year long? “I would hope so,” Perry says. “Being thankful every day promotes better stewardship and understanding of the world around us.” Kim hopes adults and kids will try to hear Perry’s talk this fall, especially those who are open to different views or consider themselves lifelong learners. “Perry gets the information out there, gets people talking, and starts conversations,” she says. For further information on “Rethinking Thanksgiving”, contact Perry Ground at Perry.Ground@rcsdk12.org .
Sue Henninger is a monthly contributor to Rochester & Genesee Valley Parent who enjoys writing about the unique people, places, and events that can be found in the Finger Lakes region. Contact her at www.fingerlakeswriter.com